Sunday, March 29, 2015

Back home: now what?


As of writing, I have been back in lovely Seattle for 4 whole days. Yokohama was still pretty cold and rainy, and Seattle has had 2 sunnier, warmer days. Dat Northwest climate, dho...the summer will be warm and sometimes breezy, the beach barbecues and camping trips, and some quality bike trails. Yokohama has all of this, but now I know people who drive and, more importantly, eat as much as I do! What's on my plate now, though? Probably the priorities of any person returning home: find a place to live, find a job, see loved ones again. Sounds pretty standard, right?
This house! Almost 10 years ago, with Aaron and Jaaron

Place found! I'm lucky enough to have beds around the world where I am welcome to stay. Teaching English for as long as I have, I've made connections with students and traveling friends; a "couch passport," if you will. The latest was meeting a co-worker's family the night before I left Japan. She has a large family, and, although none of the parents, two sisters or brother speaks English, I wasn't the only non-Japanese person at that table. I've been hosted by families before, but this impromptu party and welcoming into their family was one of the best experiences in Japan, and happened at the end of my 2.5 years there. Timing is interesting.

This time, however, my roost is with my second family that's down the street from where I spent my childhood. This is where I've spent 3 of the last 4 Christmases, and it was the hangout house during high school and university. I'll be here for at least a month until I get that first paycheck. The next goal is to move within biking distance of work.

My last day 3 years ago. Now I'm coming back for the sequel!
Job potentially found! In a few days, I'll be meeting a hiring manager at my previous school to see how I can help! From Japan, I had made a goal of working for Amazon, in some kind of Japan-US liaising position, which eventually turned into general marketing. I had the idea that a) I needed a break from teaching, b) I didn't want to lose the salary, c) I want to transfer my personal skills into something new. However, one of the benefits of staying in the same career is knowing the right people and making interviews formalities rather than evaluative tests. Good friends and fellow teachers have referred me for my last 3 jobs in the last 5 years, and I am thankful for that. Even if I still go for Amazon or Nintendo, no one can diss me for applying from a safe (read: employed) position.

Loved ones have been contacted or called, and everything is more or less the same. People around me are moving upward!

Other to-dos are maintaining a frugal lifestyle without too much help from my families, selling and downsizing my 10 boxes of possessions, getting comfortable with my bike in a different setting, and lowering my carb intake. I'd like to think these are realistic, attainable goals for the near future. What are your living, working, and relationship goals? Is there anything I missed?

Monday, March 23, 2015

My take on the state of English in Japan

These are not my students nor the school I worked at.
Yes, this is another critical article about English in Japan by an ESL teacher who taught in Japan for  2.5 years. I want you to just think about how we can change the system, rather than simply getting offended and walking away.

Here are some issues that plague English education in Japan:

Systemic underconfidence. That's not a word, but I just made it one. "My English isn't good, but...Excuse my poor English. I don't speak English." Guess what? The majority of English speakers don't speak it natively! According to Wikipedia, there are roughly 400 million people, or ~5% of the people on earth, who speak English natively and 1.1 BILLION who speak English non-natively. Sorry, students, you're not allowed to run away from English because "it isn't good."
See, look, Japan...you are orange (10-15% speakers)


1 in 5 people on earth speaks English. This means that English speakers are a little better prepared to understand English from multiple cultures, with multiple accents, and from different levels. If you think about it, 'perfect English' is impossible, so it's a waste of time to want to speak perfect English.

My advice for underconfidence is to lower your expectations. With Japanese language especially, students study kanji and take tests for 12 years (elementary through high school) and still forget how to read and write characters. When Japanese adults still have holes in their first language skills, how can they expect not to have holes in their English ability?
Even Princess Aiko is pissed off about her Eiken results

Speaking of expectations, another problem with English education in Japan (and Korea) is that the goals are out of reach for almost everyone. There was a recent article that pointed out that "about 87 percent failed to reach the goal of high school graduate level in writing and speaking" I'm going to say that when you get as high as 20% failure rate, it's time to ask yourself if you really want people to pass your test. This is a 90% failure rate and the Japanese Ministry of Education, or whoever is in charge of this disappointing statistic to wake up and look at changing goals.

I've seen and administered the Eiken (Test of English Ability) and can tell you that parts of it are in need of some tweaking. Try your best to explain the difference between authentic, genuine, legitimate and original. Now reward the genius who knows the answer with 1 measly point, out of 100 questions. 

William Shakespeare is a timeless writer of classics, and his work should be shared, studied and enjoyed. However, reading it in Middle English is an unnecessary burden, especially for non-native speakers. Let's get comfortable with modern English first.

The speaking portion of the Eiken is also poorly weighted. The reading/writing/listening part is 100 minutes, and is about environmental issues and business, among other subjects. The speaking portion of the Eiken is 3-7 minutes. Students read a paragraph for pronunciation, answer a question related to it, then talk about a picture. Then, there are 2 questions that require 2 sentences each. The questions are so specific that there are literally 5 answers for students to give, written in the grader's guide and points that you're supposed to award. For example,
in this picture:


(The) Two men are (ice) skating in a birdbath. (5 points)
Two men are (ice) skating. (4 points)
They are (ice) skating. (3 points)
It's snowing. (2 points)

But if a returnee rolls into your room, with no accent and says "Joseph and Larry are skating around the bowl in momentum to prepare for a triple-axle twist," then we're encouraged to grade especially harshly. Should the kid have said 'spin' instead of 'twist?' Sure. But that kid is fluent, and if Eiken wants to artificially knock off points to even out with someone who put in hard work to know the answer patterns, then we have to ask just what is Eiken testing for?

I think the speaking portion should be longer, even if the questions are easy. Let's give students a buffer of easy questions to reduce the anxiety, which is probably the main killer. 

It's hard to get motivation to do things when you, other people and tests tell you that you suck at it. 

Some will try and blame teachers, but when the government traps us into meeting the way-too-high standards of a poorly-balanced test, then it's the classic battle of administration-vs-teacher, and talent is wasted.

I was very lucky in my time in Japan to teach with incredibly knowledgeable English teachers who were talented and creative. It's often left to the natively speaking teachers to have the 'fun' lessons, and the Japanese teachers do the heavy lifting of grammar and vocabulary...and reading...and listening. Several of them have confided in me that they want to teach their own curriculum with ideas like current events, purpose-based learning and I also got to observe a teacher get shot down for asking to do a lesson that wasn't academic enough. So we can conclude that the higher-ups are occasionally staunching creativity.

So there you have it. I think that to have a generation of strong bilingual Japanese students; we need to make it clear that most speakers of English make mistakes all the time; we need to lower our standards by changing the test to include easier, more general questions; and the schools need to cooperate with creativity instead of keeping students' faces buried in books.



Friday, March 13, 2015

Time to put my money where my mouth is! Being cheap in Seattle

I want to keep a list of the shortcuts I'm taking on living cheaply in Seattle.

Freedom Pop has a portable 3G/4G device with various data caps...a refurbished device is $20 or $40, but then 500MB / month is free. The idea is that your phone/tablet connects to wifi when you're at home/cafes, and only uses the data when you're out and about and REALLY need to browse Reddit or show your friends that stupid cat pic.

I still needed an American phone number, so my $60/year Skype phone number is how I'll be making/receiving calls, and Facebook messenger and good ol' email is how I'll be talking to loved ones.

We're at $80 for 2015 communications, with no phone yet. We'll see how annoying it gets carrying my tablet around. I'm already used to only using my phone for text messages on the bus, thanks to Japan and it's no-voice-call culture.

Just got a refurbished LG ZTE Force for $25. Beware about getting all your good prices at Freedom Pop in one go. Their promotions don't link to each other, and I ended up making two separate orders, using two separate links.

UPDATE: 3.25 Okay, time to open the boxes! The phone is unscratched, looks new, and is pretty light and has a snappy response. There is no phone number, and upon connecting to wifi, takes you to the same 'find a number' screen that doesn't actually have any numbers available in my area. Time to call Freedom Pop! Also, as a side note, smart phones should come with Google Maps preinstalled. Google Play is, compared to Amazon and Apple's counterparts, awful. I can't even find Google Maps upon a search.

The 4g/wifi device has a few scratches (part of the refurbished deal) and powers up quickly. I found my Sprint signal for 4G in about 45 seconds, and am connected to the device via my phone. No hardware problems!

UPDATE: 3.31 Alright, readers, this phone experience with Freedompop is terrible. The FP Messenger application, which is what you send/receive calls and texts through, works about 20% of the time. My initial boot received text replies and calls. After a day or two, receiving turned off, but I didn't notice until a few days later. I've spent a total of 45 minutes on Skype calling Freedompop's very helpful customer service, and they've fixed my errors each time. Problems with FP's phone service: awful battery life (5-6hrs), relying on Google Play, which itself crashes more than it loads correctly, "network issues."

I'll repeat that FreedomPop's customer service is great and has a 100% rate for solving my issues...just the volume of issues is a bit high. Again, this is a free phone service.

The wifi hotspot, however is great. It takes about 30 seconds from standby to broadcasting a signal that multiple devices can use (I had my iPad, iPod and FP phone connected at once).

UPDATE: 5.28 After struggling with this service for 2 months, I cannot recommend Freedompop phone service for anyone short of my worst enemies. I bought a used iPhone 4 for $135, a new sim card from Ting for $9, and gave their $20/unlimited everything service a shot for the last month. It. Sucks. As before, data stuff works great, and using Facebook chat is how I communicate. But anything running through the Freedompop app is pure garbage. Texts show up on your notification screen and then never again. Missed calls simply don't register at all. Calls I made from the phone, through the FP app cut connection. Their big fix? "Resetting" my phone every 10 seconds. Like, there's a point where an unreliable phone means missed work opportunities, and I lose money. Is free service worth that? Bottom line: F MINUS for phone service, A PLUS for data.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Visit from the 'rents!

Kinkakuji - Kyoto
Being visited and playing host is awesome for a few reasons:

1. You finally have an excuse to do "touristy" stuff. I know that where I'm from, there's a slightly negative nuance to doing things like exploring your own city that you've lived in for over 10 years, or taking photos of the statue you pass on your commute 5 times a week. In Japan, tourist stuff is affordable ($3 tickets to temples, all-day bus passes for $10, group pricing at restaurants), and in some cases cheaper for foreign passports than for residents! I'm looking at you, Japan Rail pass!

Check out japanican.com for more deets on tours n stuff. Also, make sure you get your rail pass BEFORE you come to Japan.
Chinatown - Yokohama

2. You get to see your stomping grounds through someone else's eyes. That creepy statue in the small alley where you saw a bum taking dump in the middle of the road? Well, the rain washed away that dookie and your host only sees an interesting city ornament and want to take pictures!

3. Your guests may give you an opportunity to interact with the city that you might not normally take. I discovered the many cheap buses to Haneda airport from all over Yokohama, as well as a station exit that would have saved me lots of time an energy getting to my private lessons over these two years! 

Anyhoo, here's how it went: the first night, I picked her up from Haneda. Baggage claim is pretty slow. That night, we checked in to their hotel in Landmark Tower. The front desk had trouble finding my reservation, and after 20 minutes, found and upgraded the room! We ate tonkatsu (breaded-and-fried pork cutlet) nearby and that was that.








Uhh ohh, will that double my credit balance?
The next day, I met them in the afternoon, and after trying Mr Donuts, we went to Kamakura to enjoy a nice walk to Zeni-arai benten. This is a temple where it's said that any money you wash will be doubled. We had to meet a friend for dinner and ordered random Japanese dishes: Chicken katsu, sashimi platter, and a pork bone soup. Because we were juggling luggage and lockers, we only had time to ride the Enoden line from start to finish and didn't actually visit Enoshima.

Freddie having way too much fun
blessing himself for love




Wednesday was Kyoto. We took the bullet from ShinYokohama to Kyoto, arriving just before 1pm. We scored discount daypass bus tickets, and saw KiyoMizuDera. We were going to see Ginkakuji but arrived just a few minutes too late. Then, we got lost trying to find our apartment. Once we did, turns out it was very new and very unused. The owner left us with his pocket wifi because I needed it to keep in touch. Parents tried 生搾りchu-hais (fresh-squeezed malts).
Kiyomizudera - Kyoto

We used AirBnB.com for our reservations.











Thursday was Kyoto part two. Parents tried double-soft toast and we buzzed off to Kinkakuji. Then Ginkakuji, where we did most of our gift-shopping. For lunch, we had Italian, but the dessert was a deep, rich green tea cake. 

Outside da Ghibli Building
Friday we started by going to the post office, where there is an assistant who helps you choose the right line to stand in for your bank or post services. Like a hostess or maitre'd for a post office! A month ago, I went to Lawson's, a convenience store to purchase tickets for the Ghibli Museum. It was fantastic, and worth the wait. The 'rents didn't really know what they were seeing, but they liked it for sure. In one of the first lower rooms, there was a 3d-animated mobile of Ghibli stuff going on. There was also a 3-4 minute animated short of evolving prey running from evolving predators. The bottom floor also had a 13 minute animated short about an old couple who help mice defeat rats in sumo games. The story is both sweet and cute. 

The second floor has a history and sketches of Ghibli classics as well as a bookstore. The third floor has the gift shop, a Neko-bus playground for preschoolers, and a deck with spiral steps to climb to the roof, which has the giant robot from...Friday night was capped off by an hour-long JR ride to my station Tsurumi, where we had yakiniku. Mom and Dad loved it!
Runebox - Ghibli

This thing is from Laputa...
just don't translate that
title to Spanish!
Saturday, we were all kind of exhausted, so the folks came over to see my apartment for a few hours. We whisked off to Akihabara and walked through a 5-floor arcade, just to take them into the antithesis of sensory deprivation. Then we headed to Shinjuku for Sekai-no-Yamachan seasoned chicken wings, miso-tonkatsu and microbrew. After that was the Robot Restaurant!

Sunday morning was breakfast at DeliFrance, my favorite pastries in Japan. Unfortunately, their coffee is both expensive and indistinct. We waddled out of that place and spent a few hours in Chinatown, where we had a few dumplings, bought some trinkets and finally headed off to Haneda airport!


Grey Friday: Know your brands