Destination X

Wednesday’s are always a fun day. Everything from three-second rule gaffes during home economics to messy self portraits in art and, of course, English lessons. If there’s an opportunity for me to attend a workshop with the kids, I know within five minutes of entering the office. As far as JET experiences go, I wish more schools were like this. Especially since all the down time with the kids makes for greater trust once they graduate to the middle school, where I teach all levels.

So it was with a mixture of anticipation and amusement that I stood before my favorite sixth years. I’ve come to trust them in many ways: asking them to help me research local dialects spoken by their grandparents, taste testing food they’ve prepared solo, water balloon fights, recommendations for places to visit within the prefecture. Now, I was about to integrate a lesson with real world application…

“So we’ve learned a lot about other countries in this unit.”

A couple of shy yeses pop up like groundhogs in the spring. Mostly it’s quiet. I take a deep breath.

“Where should I go on my next vacation?”

“Eh?”

“Nani?”

Their teacher translates. They look back at me, half-amused and half shocked.

“I’ll go anywhere – except war zones – I’ll take pictures to show you and I’ll bring something back for everyone to see.”

Everyone reacts. “MAJI DE!”

This is the equivalent of NO WAY. Also sometimes translated as YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME and YOU’RE CRAZY.

“No, I’m 100% majiME (serious).” Luckily my lousy attempt at a pun goes unnoticed…

“France!”

“Egypt!”

“Brazil!”

“ISLAM!”

We do a 7 minute review on why Islam is not a country. And yet they’re still too enthusiastic, excited even, to pay attention.

“Okay, okay! How about next week we write down suggestions on a slip of paper and I’ll draw one from a box.”

“Maji.”

That seems to be the theme of this semester: crazy English, crazy adventures ;D

We’ll see how it goes but at the moment all we’ve decided is that this trip must take place by Silver Week 2016 and I must take many pictures with myself in front of famous places and bring something back.

An Abundance of Apples… And Then Some

The final chapter in the sixth years’ quest to grow the perfect apples and the fifth years’ rice farming experience. No matter how many times I participate, it’s always invigorating to see my kids learning something for the first time: the fumbled guesses, the hair raising stumbles, and the beautiful ‘A-HA!’ light bulb moments. It just never ever gets old.

Children are incredulously and incredibly, well, incredible. I know this explains nothing, but there are no better words for all the funny, candid moments I get with them. The things they say, the ways in which they problem solve. Every precious victory is cause for day long celebration, every failure a drama worthy of a season on HBO. Kids are so full of life, everything is so new to them. And it’s been a real privilege and an honor to be taken along for the ride.

I almost want to pitch a documentary series to NatGeo about kids and how they grow up around the world.

 

Foreign Film Fridays 02: The First Grader

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. -Nelson Mandela

first_grader_ver4_xlg

Original Title: The 1st Grader
Year: 2010
Country: Kenya & UK
Language: English/Kikuyu
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 38 min
Availability: Putlocker

A beautifully poignant biographical film, The First Grader touches the soul in ways so few films can ever hope to. Based on the life of Kimani Maruge (who at the age of 84 decided to enroll in elementary school) and his first teacher Mrs. Jane Obinchu, the movie touches upon a myriad of human issues: the worth of life, the sacrifices we make to survive, and the importance of free universal education.

Set in a village far from the comforts of modern city life,  the story follows Maruge on his journey to pursue an education, particularly in his desire to learn to read and write, and also focuses on the struggles of rural teachers to provide quality education for 200 plus students. The story is given additional depth as it is broken between Maruge’s memories of his time as a Mau Mau rebel and the relatively peaceful man he has become in the present but who has yet to fully let go of the past.

There are many beautiful scenes of Kenya in this film, rich and vibrant, and give the story a beautiful backdrop for the cinematographically inclined. More than scenes, which are truly inspiring, it’s the characters that will stay with you long after the credits have finished rolling.

Maruge is the representation of Kenya’s crossroads in history: he is the everyday man with the weight of a terrible past hanging across his shoulders. He can’t even sharpen a pencil, much less hold it correctly, but his desire to become literate enough to read a letter from the government is all he needs to keep him going. Even as he is barred from elementary school in the village and forced to walk to the nearest adult school in the city, you root for him to win but it breaks your heart to watch him continually turned away from opportunities and especially when his own village turns against him. A man his age, or so he is often told, should be resting in peace in preparation for his final exit from life. Maruge, however, heartily disagrees… And it makes you truly wonder when was the last time you pursued your dreams with such passion and unabashed shamelessness, much less when was the last time you felt so fired up to learn.

By comparison, Mrs. Obinchu is the modern woman: brave, educated, and unafraid to carve a place for herself in the world, but also unencumbered by the past. She is from a poor family and has worked to the bone to become who she is. For these reasons she can see a bit of herself in Maruge and the two form a quick and steady friendship, despite the generation gap and the opposing political sides of their families during the rebellion. Young, full of idealism, and an intellectual to the end, Mrs. Obinchu does everything in her power to keep Maruge in school.

We are nothing if we cannot read. We’re useless. -The First Grader

The First Grader is a rare glimpse into a whole new world that is far and away from anything that anyone born in a first world country will probably ever know. One would expect it to be either a campy film, with one dimensional characters full of good cheer and ready to battle illiteracy, or a very deep and disturbing look at the politics of the conflict that led to Kenya’s independence. But in reality, the breadth of human emotion is expressed in each character and situation. Even the patient and good-natured Mrs. Obinchu has her melt downs when past tribal tensions force her to confront the choices of her family’s past and when she must fight for the right of her oldest and most motivated pupil to remain in her school. She is a veritable storm of sheer will and force. I can barely manage a room of thirty-five screaming seven-year-old children for six straight periods, let alone 200 students from all ages and educational backgrounds for a whole day. All the respects were given as I watched this and began to wish that every last one of my teachers had been a Mrs. Obinchu.

For those too afraid to watch a movie saturated with political and military undertones, this film is the perfect balance between serious and idealism without losing the weight of its message. We, who live in societies that have been long removed from the fight for survival and freedom, have a responsibility to the rest of humankind to help in any way that we can. It brings home the truth that one society’s treasure can be a public ally funded institution that is taken for granted by another.

The true story of Kimani Maruge is equally inspiring but ends quite sadly in 2009, when Mr. Maruge died of stomach cancer.

 

Funny Kanji 02: Concave, Convex, and Unevenness

The previous installment of Funny Kanji dealt with the issue of kanji that when put together look nothing like their literal meaning…

funnykanji2…but sometimes separate kanji look exactly like what they’re describing. Take the character for ‘concave’. Is it hollow? Check. Is it curved? Ish. Good enough. Now look at the character for ‘convex’. Does it have a surface that is curved and rounded outward? Meh. But good enough to know what is meant.

But what happens when you put ‘convex’ and ‘concave’ together? Suddenly the combine meaning turns into ‘unevenness’. A surface that cannot clearly decide if it is one or the other. In other words, bumpy.

Of all the kanji I’ve studied, these two together are perhaps the most whimsical in my opinion. I affectionately call these two the Tetris of kanji and it brings me great joy to see them in a variety of sentences: from explaining the roughness of the moon’s surface to simply stating that the road is uneven. It’s also quite fun to say with a pronunciation like ‘DEKOBOKO’. Practically rolls off the tip of one’s lips. And if you say it fast enough it sounds like a tongue twister.

紅葉 – Kouyou

A wildfire of scarlet leaves has spread across Touhoku and the three day weekend offered the perfect opportunity to chase them across the beautiful, scenic landscape. We stayed at free campsites and accessible road stop stations along the way, paying only for toll roads, gas, onsen, and food. Total it cost about $200-300 between the two of us (approximately $150-200 per person for all three days). It’s a cheap and back roads method of travel for the more adventurous, although hotels and hostels are easy to find at each prefecture.

Towada-Hachimantai National Park is the remains of a shield volcano (the kind that forms over millennia of oozing lava) and has many lovely look out posts as you drive up and around it. It borders Aomori and Iwate, making it the perfect bridge between the two prefectures. For the shortest and easiest climb, drive the car to the last rest stop on the mountain and take a lovely hour and a half hike through trees and marshlands. The peak is dotted with curiously named marshes (Megane-numa, for example, is a duet of two very round ponds that supposedly look like glasses when viewed from above). The paths are paved for the most part, rendering proper hiking shoes with grips unnecessary.

You’re going to meet entire families or groups of friends/tourists hiking with you or passing you on their way down. Best thing to do is offer a friendly ‘Hello’ or if you can muster up the courage to do it in Japanese it will make them even happier. Advanced speakers can even through in a good old ‘Otsukare-sama desu’ for good measure; watch their eyes light up and laughter slip from their lips. Most of the time they’re going to want to strike up some conversation, to practice their English, and to ask where you’re from. It can take a couple minutes from your hike but worth the cultural exchange.

Our next stop took us to Mt. Kurikoma, a stratovolcano located between Akita and Yamagata. In its history, the volcano erupted twice, violently leaving two caldera scars as parting gifts for the amateur geologist to marvel over. The climb up and down lasts about three hours, if you have a set of good working knees, and features a gorgeous variety of volcanic activity : sulfur lakes and streams (harnessed by mankind for the popular mineral onsen), steaming fumaroles, fertile flat lands, and basalt deposits. Pro tip: pack Hokkairou (heat patches), check weather reports in advance, and don’t start your hike after 1pm if you have bad knees. We eventually made it out of the mountain with our quick wits and a cell phone flashlight but there were more than a couple times that we thought it would be a close call as the battery levels dropped ever lower and the storm grew from sprinkle to pelting rain to wind lashes and rain combined.

As you can see from the pictures below, there are very few truly bright red/orange trees left. There was a terribly strong wind in the days leading up to our departure. By the time we arrived we were only able to enjoy the remnants of what I’m sure had been a gloriously vibrant kouyou experience only days before. Still, even the burnished gold leaves made for a captivating climb. Also, the photos below were taken with an iPhone camera and no filters. I probably didn’t do the colors justice, but I tried my best!

October 01: World Ballet Day

Misty-Copland

Misty Copeland. Third African-American soloist for American Ballet Theater. Misty details the challenges of finding work and recognition as a minority dancer with a different body type in her biography.


Across time zones and across cultures, it’s World Ballet Day and the tutus and pointe shoes are out of the closet for a full 24 hours on BBC’s live stream of the event… And I’m two days late posting this  (^-^)” My schedule being what it is at the moment, I was absolutely exhausted. I didn’t even give it a go at the home made barre.

Perhaps my favorite BBC footage:

My own journey with ballet came late in life, just a little over two years ago. I can’t say exactly what prompted me to take up the barre as my mistress. For twelve long years I’d slaved away for Euterpe at the altar of music and composition. At 17, I chose my confirmation name as Cecilia solely for the fact that she was the patron saint of music. To chair as first flute in my high school orchestra was the single most defining point of my life.

And as a young gymnast and student of karate, I’d scoffed at the dainty little girls in the studio next door all lined up in a row, decked out in girly pink leotards and slippers, practicing their tame plie and tendu combinations while I was learning how to fly in the air or how to disarm a potential assailant. The sexism ran deep in those days of my younger self. I know better now not only because I have been educated and have become the wiser for it but also because I now have first hand experience on how bitchy a plie can be to execute properly, let alone a properly turned out tendu.

For those who have never taken up ballet, not even in their younger years, let me tell you: the struggle is real. Fine motor skills and incredibly muscle control are necessary to attain even a modicum of grace. The impact on the knees and insoles is unbelievable. Ballerinas will be some of the strongest people you will meet, psychologically and physically.

Somehow or other, twelve years after my first music lesson, I found myself trading up Euterpe’s golden stand for Terpsichore’s wood-floored studio one balmy summer night at the university. It could’ve been anything: yoga, hip hop, coding classes. For whatever reason, it became ballet.

tanaquil

Tanaquil Le Clercq. Her career ended tragically when she contracted polio at the height of her artistry at age 27. She became a prolific teacher in her later years.

Early the week of my first lesson, I’d gone to the local dance store with clammy hands and a sudden fear of judgment. When you think about ballet, about beginner ballerinas, the image is almost always of a mommy & me class or of a preteen or adolescent. It’s almost never of the 20-60 year old woman who has seen the world and wants to continue discovering new things about herself.

There were girls nearly half my age being fitted for their first pointes, a moment as defining of a ballerina’s life as it had been for me to attain first chair-ship in high school wind ensemble. It took me an hour of pretend browsing through racks of clothes, peeking over at the veteran employees, before I could pluck up the courage to ask for help. In the end, I purchased a simple, black leotard and skin colored tights (even as I was embarking on the greatest self-experiment of my life, I still had misgivings about the color pink) but there would be no avoiding it for the shoes; amazingly, my worn out leather Bloch slippers are now my life and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. 

From day one of abdomen ass-kicking at the hands of ballet and the perfectionist Madame Darcy, I fell madly in love with feeling so incredibly vulnerable and yet so alive. I’d never moved my body as a dancer. Still, that first night’s experience was an enlightenment. I felt human again.

The glittering world of ballet is quite possibly one of the most feminist dance forms around, which sounds crazy to say considering how little girls are groomed from a young age to attain a near impossible physical ideal. But comparatively, in ballet, it is the woman and not the man who is the centerpiece and leader in the dance. The scene of stardom is dominated by a slew of incredible prima ballerinas across history while only a handful of male dancers have been able to push past to the ranks of single name status world-renown. And not for a want of talent or grace or strength, either, as the male body is comprised of more muscle than its female counterpart. Still, while every generation or so produces a single male dancer who achieves the same level of worldwide stardom as their female counter part, it seems as if there are easily five or ten times as many women on the international scene who achieve that same level of recognition or higher. There are prima ballerinas (cream of the crop) and then there are prima ballerina assoluta (a title for only the most exceptional of the cream of the crop), one which applies only to women. As far as I know there is no male equivalent. Perhaps it’s the ephemeral pointe work, the selling point of ballet, which applies only to women that produces this fame effect.

For those dancers or aspiring dancers who are not completely convinced about ballet, the evolution of this dance form is still in process. Many fear that ballet is too rigid an art form to be popular in the new age of spontaneity and fluidity. Also, the main repertoire revolves around The Classics (classics that were classics even during you great grandmother’s time): Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, etc. Very few living ballerinas have had choreography created solely for them. But this changing.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2f-AvMve1N

I hope that more and more people discover the arts, in all its forms, and take a moment to truly appreciate them. It almost feels as if every year, more and more programs are cut simply on the premise of being unrelated to business or generating money and there useless.

Foreign Film Fridays 01: Mostly Martha

Because what’s not to love about watching films on Fridays about foreign worlds? A weekly series of posts to follow on all sorts of films: thriller, romance, action, mystery, and just down right quirky from all countries and languages. If you have any suggestions, by all means leave a comment! I would love to receive suggestions for more foreign films. Opening this weekly series we have…

mostlymartha

Original Title: Bella Martha
Year: 2001
Country: Germany
Language: German
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 45 minutes
Availability: Netflix

The film begins with a mouth-watering, epicurean description of food as the eponymous protagonist details to her therapist how she would go about preparing the perfect full course meal. DISCLAIMER: DO NOT WATCH ON AN EMPTY STOMACH. I did and regretted it within the first two minutes.

The plot is deceptively simple: Martha is a single, German woman with a passion for cuisine who must learn to reorient her life around a new Italian coworker and to care for her orphan niece after the untimely death of her sister.  For those who have seen the American version, No Reservations (2007) with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, the German original will breathe new life and understanding into its American counterpart.

But while similar in the main plot, No Reservations features an all Caucasian main cast, which in turn renders Mostly Martha‘s original secondary plots useless in the remaking. Other differences include the pacing of the film. American films tend to be fast-paced, segue easily and fluidly from one scene to the next, and stitch themselves together into a false sense of artistic perfection.  I say false because in the seamless move from main scene to main scene you miss the little scenes, the imperfect little fillers that give a film its realistic essence. By comparison, Mostly Martha is shot to give the viewer as much background context as possible about who Martha is and life around her. There are main scenes, not so main scenes, and fillers shots of the characters at their most candid. None of the romance or her flaws are romanticized or glossed over; the story reveals itself gradually at a natural pace. When Martha and Mario kiss, they don’t go at it calmly or at just-the-right angle, they simply have a go at kissing like most of us do, however awkward it may be to watch.

Also of note, our alliterative culinary artiste duo have all the tension and chemistry that two people from vastly different background can possess. From language and culture to the way in which they run their kitchens and the food the make – everything, except their shared love for the art of cooking, is different. As they learn how to bridge their differences through their commonalities and how to accept each other as they are, Martha’s and Mario’s characters grow. The secondary plot issues, palpable between German-born Martha and Italian Mario, revolve around race and who is an insider versus an outsider.This in turn makes his food that much more exotic to Martha, who has never once been to Italy and can only experience it through Mario’s cooking. Indeed, this film feels as much a discovery of culture and intercultural interactions as it is about the food and the romance.

Unfortunately, No Reservations also has no underlying current of bridging cultures and worlds through food. It’s feels more like two people who have a different administrative approach and can’t seem to see eye to eye on the running of a kitchen. While Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character prefers French cuisine and Aaron Eckhart’s cooks Italian, different culinary tastes do not an intrinsic cultural battle make. Also her descriptions of the food fall flat with her calm and quiet demeanor, where Martina Gedeck’s take flight through use of sensual intonation and passionate  verbal caresses. While I love and prefer the modern cinematography of No Reservations (and Catherine and Aaron do have chemistry), I would rate Mostly Martha as the better of the two films for its diversity and for being more than just a romantic caper between two chefs.

Both films are wonderful (yes, I went there) and worth watching… just not on an empty stomach! Bon appetit!