Friday, 26 April 2013

Being Vegetarian at Japanese Work Parties

Beautiful autumn opening dish
This post is my contribution to the "Eat, Drink, Cook" Japanese bloggers' carnival.

The other contributions are:

Eating My Way Around an Island by Big Red Dots and Squggly Inkblots. Furiida blogs about her experiences as a JET Programme participant in the rural prefecture of Oita.

The History of Yakiniku by Angry Gaijin. Cameron Ohara is a Gaikokujin (foriegner) living in Japan. But get this - he was actually Japanese in a previous life! Now it's all he can do to get his Japanese comrades to look beyond his red hair and tall nose and see the Japanese human that exists within!

Samurai Sushi by Gaijin Explorer. Zacky Chan studies aikido and kyudo, and informally practices whatever else is relevant. He can usually be found on his days off exploring forests and mountains on his mountain bike.

Check them out!
The starter course, Japanese-style restaurant

For vegetarians who are preparing to start their ALT stint, enkai and other work parties are a source of considerable fear and anxiety. When I first got here I was so worried about causing “meiwaku” with my vegetarianism that I just paid for the parties and tried to drink my money’s worth. Which is hard since alcohol is very cheap in Japan and enkai are very expensive. At the second enkai where I did this the school nurse told me that it was ridiculous, summoned the manager and asked what they could make that I could eat. They slapped some salad together and after much apologising, told me that if I had asked in advance they could have done a whole separate menu for me. Since work parties are usually “course menus”, meaning everyone pays a set fee for set dishes, I had assumed that any variation would be impossible. The next party we had, I asked the organiser to request a vegetarian meal for me but hastened to add that I’d still come if it wasn’t possible. The organiser asked me to write a list of what I couldn’t eat, just to be sure, and there were no problems. In coming up to four years of enkai I have never had a party at the same venue twice, and never had a venue refuse to make a vegetarian menu for the same price as the course, including Japanese and seafood restaurants. However, when I say vegetarian I need to emphasise what I said in my introductory post about being vegetarian in Japan: You need to decide how bendy your rules are. I don’t ask if my miso soup was made with fish stock and I don’t ask if the pudding is thickened with gelatine. If you are religiously or unwaveringly vegetarian, it might be impossible to have a separate menu because even the sauces and seasonings would have to be made from scratch for you. With that disclaimer made, I haven’t had any problems at all, despite being very worried about it before I came. So, as I wrap up my ALT tenure, I thought I’d show you some examples of enkai meals I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. The photos are all sneakily (and frequently drunkenly) taken with my phone, so apologies for the poor quality.
The green stuff is konnyaku (devil tongue?) sashimi. Restaurants often try to give me something similar to what everyone else is having (in this case, obviously, sashimi)
They were onto a great thing with the veggies but then they just had to stick an f-ing crab cake thing in there. But I can't complain, because that is an actual matsutake mushroom and I didn't pay any more than the chumps who got a single shrimp in their turnip!
Autumn mushroom steamed custard
Simple but yummy~ everyone else had grilled fish. My packet has three kinds of mushrooms, onions and sweat potato

I love the effort they've gone to using a grilled shiitake mushroom for nigirizushi
 Most of these photos are from autumn (fall) parties, I don't always get given so many mushrooms! This last photo is from a different kind of experience.

As I said, I usually get something similar to the original menu, but this particular party was in a seafood restaurant so there was really no way to vegetarian-ify the menu for me. In stead they just cooked whatever random things they wanted. It was amazing, course after course of random stuff from deep-fried cheese to chazuke, caesar salad to a tofu nabe. Sadly I didn't manage to get any other photos that were in focus. It's not my fault, I had to represent my section in a beer drinking competition. They were counting on me.
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Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Communication is More Than Language

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Because, puppy.

This falls under the “yeah, obviously, and?” category a little but bare with me. I was reading through a TEFL text today and this (very obvious) observation jumped out at me:

“Competence is not the same as ability. In order to be able to communicate, people need psycho-physiological mechanisms, i.e. communicative skills (After Bachman, L. 1990. Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. OUP. P. 84-85). 
Communication is the process of interpersonal interaction and requires the knowledge of social conventions i.e. the knowledge of rules about proper ways to communicate with people.
In accordance with the social conventions, participants in communication perform communicative functions (to socialize, to inform, to persuade, to elicit information, to manipulate behavior and opinions, to perform rituals etc), communicative roles (leader, informer, witness, participant, catalyst, entertainer etc) (Ellis, R. 1994. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. OUP. P. 160). In order to perform these functions a speaker needs more than just the knowledge of the language.
The process of communication is characterized with communicative strategies of achieving a goal through communication (Pollak A. Communicative strategies at work. NJ 1995).
Success of communication depends very much on the knowledge of successful strategies chosen by the speakers. E.g. the Prince (in “The Prince and the Pauper” by M.Twain) was unable “to ask” because he was only competent in how to “give orders”.”

This struck me particularly today because just last week some of the other ALTs and I were comparing notes on insensitive things our JTEs have said to us. They are examples of interactions in which there is not a language barrier as such, but a huge communicative barrier. In other words, even if you can say something, there are some things that native English speakers just don’t say. For example, “you’re really fat.” The grammar and pronunciation may be perfect, but when a teacher (or in this case the principal) walks up to an ALT and makes this statement they are not displaying communicative competency in English. Yes, they communicated their literal meaning. However, the impression left with the ALT is definitely not the impression the principal was hoping for. In another example, a JTE made a worksheet that asked students which animal was the most numerous in Singapore: Koalas, cats, or Singaporeans. Technically, if push came to shove, an English speaker would agree that humans are a kind of animal. But we would never, ever phrase a question in that way, particularly when talking about a specific nationality (and that’s before even touching on the implications for war-time memories and trauma). Technically the English is unproblematic, but communicatively this was a disaster. 

To give a Japanese language example, some teachers and I were heading to karaoke after an enkai and we invited another teacher to join us. She declined by saying “No thanks, I’ve got diarrhoea.” Now, we had just spent three hours in a restaurant eating and drinking. She didn’t have diarrhoea. She was making a “polite excuse”. After I picked my jaw up off the ground I checked the reactions of the other teachers: it seemed that this was an appropriate and at least vaguely normal way to decline a casual invitation. A great advantage of learning Japanese in Japan is that I get to observe and imitate natural interactions like this (well, I’m not sure I’ll ever use this particular expression, but you get the idea). I see how people react to one another’s utterances. My students can learn text book English without a native speaker in the classroom, but they cannot learn to communicate with a non-Japanese person unless they have a non-Japanese person to communicate with. Unfortunately although junior high schools have ALTs, they don’t have space in the curriculum for any meaningful communication. Like many other ALTs, I do most of my communication with my students between classes, not during them. The girl who flatly refuses to answer “WHAT IS YOOOUUUR NAAAMMEE?” in class will dash over to me the second the bell rings to ask if I think the boy she likes is a “mood maker”, and she will do her best to ask me in English. 

In class she is fearful of deviating from the script, of making a mistake in front of the teacher and of how her classmates will react to whatever she says. Communicating is not even on her list of concerns. When the bell goes, the same people are in the same room, but everything is different. It goes beyond verbal language. I have one elementary school boy who I used to dislike quite intensely. He would spend every lesson yelling, throwing things, punching other kids, and shouting insults at me. One day I met him walking home after school and we walked together for ten or fifteen minutes, having a lovely chat. He picked me flowers from the side of the road and told me about the time he woke up and his parents had gone on holiday without him (but don’t worry, they left cup noodles for him, so it was OK… apparently). Since then I’ve played with him at lunch time quite often and he is always lovely. He even lets me win occasionally so I don’t get too embarrassed about how rubbish I am at sports. He is an incredibly kind and endearing little kid. But in class he is still a monster, and he still yells abuse at me. It’s all about the situation and who is watching him. Until I spent time with him outside of that situation, I didn’t see past the monstrous façade. But back to language! 

The Education Ministry is trying to address the issues in communicative competency with the most recent guidelines for elementary school “foreign language activities”. The guidelines interestingly include several mentions of using these activities to improve students’ Japanese. The difficulty I have getting students to communicate even as far as “yes” or “no” in English are reflected in other subjects as well. Teachers of other subjects complain about the inability of their students to answer in sentences, instead grunting or giving one word answers to questions. I assume this is much the same with teenagers anywhere, but the teachers are adamant that they were never so uncooperative. My favourite part of the guidelines says that students should become comfortable using whatever English words they know, Japanese, gestures and tone of voice to try to communicate. We shouldn’t teach them grammar or have them memorise set phrases, we should encourage them to engage and connect. Predictably, these great objectives are lost in most classrooms, where instead of “use sports to engage students’ interest in English” many elementary teachers instead default to “spend forty minutes repeating ‘tennis’ after the ALT”. 

Several years ago I worked with a junior high school JTE who was temporarily restricted from teaching alone because of classroom management issues. She came to classes with another JTE as an assistant, a position that she resented violently (not least because she outscored him on written English tests). The other JTE is a teacher I have a lot of respect for because he really tries to get the students to think about English, not just parrot back set phrases. During a lesson on the difference between “made of” and “made from” he gave two examples then asked the students to think about the difference. After a bit of discussion he explained his impression of the difference. He then listed a number of objects on the board and asked students to think about whether “of” or “from” would be better. It was a challenging class for the students, but at the end of it they have the foundational understanding to determine which to use with any new noun they learned from then on. After the class I went to the bathroom. The ‘assistant’ JTE was on her hands and knees scrubbing the toilet floor with a stiff brush.
“What did you think of the class?” She asked.
“I thought it was great!” I answered enthusiastically. “How about you?”
“I thought it was terrible!” She ramped up her scrubbing until the wooden top of the brush was bashing loudly into the tiles. “It was too difficult for the students and it was a waste of time. He should have given them a list to memorise. A whole period for just that? Unbelievable!” 

The thing is, she isn’t wrong either. He wants them to think about English, understand English and enjoy using English. She wants them to pass their high school entrance examinations with the highest possible score. Of course, they both want both things for the students, but the emphasis is different. He is thinking about life-long learning, she is looking at short term goals. As an ALT I want to teach with JTEs like him, but if my own children were killing themselves to pass that all important test… would I prefer them to have a teacher like her? It’s a question that makes me think about my job in a different light. You don’t have to go far to find ALT blogs blithely listing all the flaws in Japan’s English education system. They are probably all accurate observations; I’m not saying that the system isn’t broken. However, the solutions many ALTs happily rattle off are based on their impressions of successful learning within their own education systems. You can’t just ignore the context of the examination system and Japan’s particular attitude to other cultures. What might seem like obvious solutions (ie, have speaking as a component of testing) don’t necessarily translate any better in the Japanese system then walking up to an ALT and saying telling her she is fat translates into a friendly gesture in English speaking cultures.
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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Drama-Queen Dogs

The ear muffs aren't for warmth, they are to block out Hayate's complaining
Shiba are well-known drama queens. The “shiba scream” is a breed trait familiar to all humans who live with shiba. If you haven’t had the joy of hearing it, listen to this video (skip forward to around 4:15). I guarantee you this dog is not being hurt or harmed in anyway.
We bought a book about shiba before we got Hayate, and it said to be very careful to treat illnesses seriously because shiba are a stoic breed who won’t show how much pain they are in. This may be true when they are seriously ill, but it definitely wasn’t true in any of the incidents we’ve experienced with Hayate. After Hayate was neutered he acted as though he was dying. Because of the cone he couldn’t scratch his face, and he would cry and eventually shiba-scream unless I scratched it for him whenever he got an itch. Yes, I literally slept on the floor beside him so I could “nurse” him until the cone came off (don't be fooled by the picture, the man spent a bout five minutes in there then gave up and left me to it). Then there was drinking. He could drink from his bowl just fine with the cone on, but he felt that it was unbecoming. So he required his water to be delivered into his mouth via a dropper. He also refused to walk or urinate for the first three days. Since I was (very painfully) aware of how much water he had been drinking I got pretty freaked out by day three, so we decided to take him back to the vet. The Mr carried him in his arms, because we thought the bicycle might jolt him around too much (this was before we had the car). About five minutes down the road, while cradled against the loving bosom of the aforementioned man, Hayate decided that he could pee after all.  Three days’ worth. All down the front of the now considerably less loving Mr.
When we arrived at the vet I explained the terrible pain Hayate appeared to be experiencing that prevented him from walking or peeing (when not being carried, at least). Our long-suffering vet listened patiently, then told me to put Hayate down on the ground. Hayate likes our vet as a person but hates The Vet as a place and experience. The second I put him down on the ground he bolted for the door at top speed. “He seems fine” the vet commented mildly.
This video was taken about half an hour before dinner time (we feed him in his travel crate). Although he sounds like he is starving to death, keep in mind this was his second meal of the day and he gets fed at exactly the same time every day so he knew full well it wasn’t dinner time yet.
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Thursday, 18 April 2013

ひまわりと子犬の7日間 Sunflower and (Her) Puppies’ Seven Days


This was is of those movies you don’t really want to watch but feel like you should. The titular seven days refers to the period dogs are kept in the government shelter before being killed (in Miyazaki prefecture specifically, but I think the period is pretty standard). So it was obviously not going to be a feel-good movie. I went with two dog loving friends, one of whom has a shiba adopted from our prefectural shelter. We were expecting to have a bit of a cry, but we really weren’t prepared for how quickly the film moved into “dear god someone save that dog” territory. The entire cinema was in tears literally five minutes in, with the first dog dying within two minutes. It was utterly wrenching (don't worry, the trailers are relatively free from "I hate the human race" moments).

My local Board of Education has been promoting the film to schools and there has been an accompanying poster campaign about being prepared for a life-long commitment to a pet before deciding to keep one etc. This is sorely needed in Japan. I follow a no-kill privately run shelter called “Heart Tokushima” on facebook and although it is cheering to see the wonderful work they do, the sheer number of cats and dogs who come through and the number that the local government shelter kills rather than allowing them to take is heartbreaking. 

As a movie I don’t think ひまわりと子犬の7日間 was particularly well made. The plot is a vehicle for the message, and the story line suffers as a result. Nevertheless, it wasn’t terrible and the message is important enough that I’m happy to overlook the slightly torturous script. You can see some of the additional campaigning for shelter dogs accompanying the movie on the official website.
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