Monday, September 27, 2010

Culture Shock Phase 2: Yay for getting a job! ---And Autumn in Japan

Life has a way of changing...and quickly too.  Last Friday was my birthday and whilst being treated to an amazing Japanese dinner, I received a phone call. It was a job offer. I am quite certain this will remain one of the best birthday gifts I will ever receive!

As I just graduated this past May, this will be my first "real" job.  I am SO excited.  The company I may now call my employer is Saiei International Schools.  It is an English conversation school company.  The operate a number of schools throughout the Saitama Prefecture.  Teachers are not assigned to individual schools; they rotate schools throughout the week.  So I will be teaching at a variety of locations.  This means that my commute will also vary considerably from day to day.  Luckily, I commute my train which means I still may fill my time with constructive things such as reading, studying Japanese, knitting and listening to music or audio books on my iPod. Could be worse.

Saiei is, as I said before, an English conversation school.  English is taught through immersion. Japanese is, in fact, forbidden from the classroom.  They are very strict regarding this matter.  Fine with me...I don't know much Japanese yet! (I am trying to learn though...) I will be teaching a set curriculum for twenty minutes of each class period.  The rest of the class periods will be filled with various conversation activities. As the German tutor on campus last semester, I had a great time teaching the whole class when the German teacher was out of town.  I am thrilled I have been given the opportunity to further my experience teaching languages! :)

The most challenging aspect of taking this job will be the commute as well as the hours.  My working hours will be either 1 - 9 or 2 - 10 every day.  That is pm, of course. Also! I will always have to work Fridays AND Saturdays.  Happy happy joy joy.  I really don't care though.  I am certainly not allowed to be picky when it comes to finding work in Japan, let alone the whole world. (Yeah, economy.)  I will always have Sundays off as well as some other random day through the week.  Next week I have Thursday off, for example.  So with the crazy commute, I will be able to sleep in everyday but I will be getting back home very late.

In other news: the rainy season on begun.  The temperature has plunged downward.  The clouds have shrouded the mountains in their mist.  We have quickly retreated back to out familiar sweat shirts and jeans.  Being from northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, we were having a rather difficult time acclimating to the sultry summer of Japan.  This chilly temperature calls for slippers, soup and warm drinks.  I find myself comforted by the Autumn scents which drift through the air when the rain decides to take a break.

Autumn in Japan is entirely different from home.  The trees have barely begun to change.  Rice is being harvested.  Chestnut trees are dropping their prickly fruits to the ground.  Pumpkins are not orange, but a very pale yellow.  Flowers are still blooming.  I miss the familiar Fall rituals from apple cider, bundling up and wandering through Bayfield the first weekend in October, breathing the crisp, salubrious air that blows across the great lake and through the northern forests. I fend off the melancholy with my new discoveries here: sweet potato candy (odd, but strangely delicious), making little pots of tea, hiking up the Chichibu Mountains, learning to bake in my teeny-tiny oven...I have discovered that baking is extremely satisfying for the soul.  Pie, bread, brownies...The scents the consume the kitchen and the warmth that permeates from the oven is enough to transport anyone to a Autumn paradise. 

The Fruit of the Chestnut Tree
A Chestnut Tree
Chestnuts fallen to the ground. The prickly skin is broken away to release the edible chestnut fruit.

These red flowers are blooming everywhere now. I am trying to figure out what they are.
A pumpkin pasta dish we made last week. Delicious!
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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Culture shock: Phase 1

Life in Japan. I am not a happy person now. Hmm…that is a lie. I must correct myself: I am a happy person regarding my personal life. Karl is a superb husband. I have a positively charming apartment with everything I could possibly need within it. This melancholy feeling which has steadily crept up on me over the past couple of weeks has more to do with my professional life, or lack thereof, as it were.

Since before I flew to Japan over a month ago, I have been trolling the interwebs for potential employment opportunities in or near our area here in Saitama, Japan. Since I am currently unable to speak any significant amount of Japanese I am limited to jobs teaching English. This narrows the field of jobs for which I am eligible. Furthermore, the status of my visa is dependent. This means I am not allowed to work full-time. I am permitted to work up to 28 hours while in possession of a dependent visa; however, I must acquire approval from local authorities.

Acquiring a working visa is possible. (Hooray!) Unfortunately you must get a job and your new employer must agree to “sponsor” the visa change before you can become eligible for the upgrade. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is simple. The tricky part comes when you are searching for jobs willing to sponsor the upgrade. Ninety percent of the job listings I have found refuse to sponsor visa upgrades. Please do not ask me why. I wish I knew.

So. Assuming I find the small number of jobs willing to sponsor visa upgrades, I then check other requirements. This is usually when I find the experience expectations. Most places will not even consider applicants without at least one to two years experience in teaching English. Sigh…

Despite these very particular requirements, I have successfully acquired two job interviews within the last two weeks. The first one was for an international preschool called Beans. Each “grade” has a name that has something to do with beans. The youngest children are “Jelly Beans,” for example. Way cute. My interview here went extremely well! I really enjoyed seeing the school and meeting the teachers and kids. Unfortunately, I was not chosen. L Fortunately, this means I will not have to commute five hours round trip every day.

Speaking of commuting, that is another reason why finding a job is difficult. We live in a town called Ogawa-Machi. It is forty-five minutes away from the nearest city by train. This doesn’t seem to bad, really. Once you add the time for walking to the train station and then walking to the job location, time adds up extremely quickly. My interviewers at Beans seemed very concerned that I live so far away. I can’t really blame them. Commuting that far is no fun.

My second interview was a week ago. It was at a place called Saiei International- even further away than the other interview. If I get this job, I would be traveling to different locations within Saitama five days a week, some closer and some further away. Unfortunately, my odds for getting this job are pretty slim as I am one of 2366 applicants. Yikes. But hey! I got an interview at least.

For the past five years I have been in school with an average of seventeen credits per semester. Plus life guarding, being the campus orchestra librarian, teaching seven piano students, planning a wedding (this past year), attending rehearsals, practicing, not to mention trying to maintain my personal life. In other words, I am used to being extraordinarily busy. After graduating, getting married, and then moving to Japan last month, my life feels like it has gone from 5000 mph to 5.

The first couple weeks in Japan were fine, of course. Everything was new and exciting! I am afraid the novelty of living in a different country has begun to wear-out. I am just plain annoyed at times. I want to turn on the TV and understand what is happening and know what people are saying. I want to go to the grocery store and find a huge display of cheese that doesn’t taste like gross. (Wisconsin cheese is what this girl wants…) I want to go shopping and find a pair of pants that aren’t five inches too short…assuming I can find a pair to fit my American sized hips, that is.

I am trying my best to not go stark raving mad…and I find I have been successful (for the most part…). I usually have things to keep me busy. I have also been making friends. A very sweet family has taken me under their wings. I met the lady mother of this family through the chorus I have joined. She is a pianist and wanted to give me a piano lesson. She doesn't speak much English. I don’t speak much Japanese. I explained as best as I could that I had to leave all my piano music at home and also that I have no place to practice. So it turned out to not be much of a piano lesson but she was still very sweet and took me shopping and made lunch for me.

I met her husband as well. He speaks English extremely well. They were very concerned that I do not have a job and am by myself all day. So they have decided that I should come over to spend time with them a few days a week until I find a job. I can practice on their grand piano, play with their puppy, and they can help me learn Japanese!

Tonight I will hear if I got the job...cross your fingers and say a prayer with me!
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Thursday, September 2, 2010

 Beef Sukiyaki 

This post is to update the cooking adventures. 
There have been many successes! Hooray! As I continue to cook every day I become increasingly more adventurous in what I am willing to try.  I have also learned that de-veining shrimp takes for-ev-er. But that is ok because they are so delicious! Seafood here is WAY cheaper than in the midwest, for obvious reasons.  We are much closer to the ocean here. It am still amazed when I walk into the grocery store and there is a huge section devoted to whole squid, octopus tentacles, various crustaceans and a truly amazing variety of fish.  

Dish number one (ichi-一)! This is beef sukiyaki. The funny looking white things in there are a certain type of noodle called Shirataki (白滝). They are thin, translucent and have a jelly-like texture to them.  You are able to buy them either cooked already or dry.  They have a very interesting flavor that comes from the root of the plant from which they are made.  This plant is Japanese devil's tongue.

Another thing I learned when I made this dish is that red meat was not allowed in the Japanese diet until fairly recently: the mid-1800's.  Up until that time it was against the Buddhist teachings to eat red meat.  During the mid-nineteenth century international influence weakened this teaching and it was removed altogether.  It is from this time that this dish, Beef Sukiyaki, dates. 

Udon Noodle Soup
Dish number two (ni-二)!  This is Udon Noodle Soup with pork.  This has been one of our favorites thus far.  Udon is a thick type of noodle made from wheat.  Almost always served in broth, there can be a large variety or toppings.  Some examples are tempura (てんぷら), prawns, or pork, as we used.  It is also typically served with the thinly sliced scallions on top as a garnish.

Braised Shrimp with Vegetables

Dish number three (san-三)! This is braised shrimp with vegetables.  I strayed from the Japanese cuisine the night I made this and cooked Chinese style.  I was able to find the oyster sauce at Inageya (いなげや) just fine.  When I was searching for the bamboo shoots I suddenly realized I was looking for them in the canned goods.  They are, naturally, in the produce section here.  You can buy them whole and slice them yourself or simply buy a bag of them that have been pre-sliced.

Curried Noodles with Pork

Dish number four (yon-四)! Straying yet again from Japanese cuisine, I decided it was time to try something from Singapore/Malaysia. (The section in the cookbook groups these two together.) This dish is Curried Noodles with Pork.  The noodles are a dry stick noodle.  You put them in a bowl and pour hot water over them and let them sit for twenty minutes.  Very different!  They have a significantly different texture from any other type of noodle.  The best way I can describe them is chewy.  We enjoyed them! As with many curry recipes, this one called for coconut milk.  Finding the coconut milk was not difficult.  What I did think was different was the consistency.  When one purchases coconut milk in the States it is usually relatively liquid like.  This was practically solid.  My guess is they leave most of the natural oils in...? Just a guess.  It still worked great and tasted oishii! (おいしい! Delicious!) 

So there you have it! I have obviously been cooking more then this, these are just the top picks.  :) Also, as you can probably see, my adventuring with my camera is going well! I am learning much more about proper settings and when, where and how to use them. 

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Blues, Jazz and City Lights

Last Saturday Karl and I met up with a group of other JET English teachers for a night out on the town.  We met in Saitama City.  Saitama City is about a two hour train ride away from Ogawa-Machi, where Karl and I live.  Not a bad ride at all.

I was very excited when we found the John Lennon Museum in the Saitama Super Arena.  I just about stopped breathing I was so excited! (The Beatles are my favorite band ever of all time.) It was closed, but Karl has promised to take me there for my birthday next month before it closes on the 30th of September.  :)!!!!

We ate at a Hawaiian burger place (I had the pineapple burger, how could you not!?).  We were very impressed that the food was "American" sized.  If you ordered a large, it was actually what we Americans would consider large.  You typically get what we would call medium for a large order here. 

After eating we found the coolest tiny little Jazz/Blues bar downtown Saitama.  It was fabulous! They were singing and playing all these tunes that we recognized, like Johnny B. Good and Oh! Darling (The Beatles), for instance. Fabulous.  We had the best time and are definitely going to go back and check it out again!

I must apologize for the lack of photos in this post.  For some reason my photos will not upload. I blame my crappy mooched interwebs! (I am still waiting to get our own interwebs. sigh....)

The next post should be fun. Karl and I are going out with a bunch of people tomorrow for some Japanese Karaoke! woohoo! I am pretty excited.

Till next time...

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