Thursday, December 29, 2011

Atheist Conversion Story

I sat down a while ago to write exactly how, why, and when I became an atheist. I have had people ask me about it before, and I thought I would write it all out and get my thoughts in order so that anyone who was curious could read about it. I started writing, and three hours and 1,500 words later, I wasn’t even a quarter of the way through. So, I scrapped that, and decided to write a condensed version.

What it comes down to is that I was raised in a very close-knit and very religious Mormon family. Many of my friends were my same religion, and I spent a lot of time at church. My family read the bible together, prayed together, and in high school I spent an average of 10 hours a week at church ( scripture study class, Sunday church, and Wednesday night youth activities). Church was a huge part of my life, and it was important to everyone important to me, and so I went along with it. I said what I was expected to say and I mostly did what I was expected to do. My family thought I believed it. For the most part I didn't question my “faith.” I’m a pretty easy going person, so I went along with what other people wanted, because I thought it didn’t much matter. This lasted through high school, through most of college (at a church school), and even afterwards for a short time. I didn't have a testimony of Jesus, but so what? I’ll go along with being Mormon, because it’s all I know.

At college, I started studying the bible for a required religion credit and finally started paying attention. I was supposed to believe WHAT??? I was supposed to look to the Bible for moral guidance? Murder, slavery, child brides, and polygamy all get condoned, and I’m supposed to believe this is the highest moral law? Suddenly, something actually was important to me. That something was figuring out what I DID or DIDN’T believe. Did I believe I should submit to my husband? Did I believe that homosexuality was a sin? Did I believe that my church was true? Did I even believe in god? I had a lot of incentive to believe. My whole family is very religious, and I wanted to make them happy. I was pretty miserable at this point in my life and I saw how content other people were in the church, and I wanted to be content like them. But still, after four years of study, thought, and unanswered prayers I realized that no, no church is true. There is no god.

It’s not that I think religion is “too hard,” and I didn’t want to put the work in. It’s not that I want to live a terribly sinful life. It’s not that I’m angry or sad. It’s that it’s NOT REAL. Once I realized that simple truth, I felt an actual weight lift off my shoulders. I no longer had to force my mind to believe ridiculous unscientific facts. I no longer had to harden my heart against equal rights for the LGBT community. I no longer had to feel unloved by a god who seemed indifferent to me. I had finally found the happiness I wanted so badly, and I found it through abandoning the religion that had been tying me down!

So, I guess it’s as simple as that. I’m an atheist because I tried really hard to believe in a god, and couldn’t. I tried praying, fasting, studying the scriptures and that only drove me farther away from religion. I stopped being depressed and angry when I stopped trying to force myself to believe in god. As an atheist I became more giving, open, confident, smarter, happier, and a better person.

Monday, December 05, 2011


I just finished taking a big Japanese language test. It’s called the JLPT, and I took level 4. It’s a pretty expensive test. Between the test fee and the postage to mail in the test application, it cost about 7,000 Yen. That’s about 90 US dollars. I’m hoping to get a job teaching English at a Japanese University pretty soon, so being able to pass a Japanese test would look pretty good on my resume. Now, there are 5 levels, the 1st level proving that you are fluent, and the 5th level showing that you have probably studied two semesters worth at college. (As anyone who has studied a foreign language can attest to, two semesters doesn’t add up to very much language ability, much less when you have to spend half that time just learning to read...and not getting very far on that anyways.)
So, I took level 4 on December 4th 2011. I began planning to take the test in May, 2011. In May, I went to the JLPT website and answered the sample questions they provide on the website for level 5 ( I passed with flying colors. I failed the level four questions spectacularly. However, the test wasn’t for another seven months. I study about twleve hours or more a week, so I figured I could level up in that amount of time. I study from the textbook series called Genki. I mostly focused on just working my way through that textbook. It’s a great textbook series that combines all four skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing), in order to create a well-rounded Japanese speaker. I figured that it would just as adequately prepare me for the test as anything else would. I felt that my listening skills were pretty good, as were my reading and writing skills, but that I needed more work on my grammar. (Specifically, particles, for any Japanese speakers out there)
About two months before the test, I started looking online and found some practice tests. I took them and aced the reading portion with flying colors. I did acceptable on the grammar section and got a...wait for it.... 0 on the listening section. Yes. ZERO.
See, the test doesn’t just hand you the answers. A sample question was something like,
Listen to the dialogue-
Girl: Why were you so late today?
Boy: I had problems on the bus.
Girl: What happened? Did you oversleep?
Boy: No, when I got off the bus, I realized I had left my wallet on my seat!
Girl: Oh! I thought you were going to say you forgot your wallet at home.
Boy: No, I didn’t forget my wallet at home.
Question: Why is he late?
A-He slept in and missed the bus.
B-He left his wallet at home.
C-He left his wallet on the seat of the bus.
For someone like me who can only pick out words here and there, this is a pretty tricky question! When I hear the choices, it’s hard to pick which one is best, because I heard the main parts of each sentence. So I picked B, because I heard about him leaving his wallet at home more than anything else. In the test making business, we call those types of questions “distractors,” and I should know better than to fall for them, but I did every time. That’s why I did worse than if I had just marked random answers.
So I immediately started focusing on my listening skills. I listened to Japanese on my phone as I biked to and from school, I watched Japanese TV at home and YouTube tutorials, and I started feeling more confident. I found a different listening sample test and scored 60% on it! (50% is a passing grade.) I continued studying, but I felt very confident that I would pass the test. From time to time Jon would give me five minute tutorials in Japanese grammar or reading as we were grocery shopping or waiting for the bus. For example, he taught me how to remember the difference between the very similar looking kanji for “to wait” , “to hold” 持, and “especially” . 

Now we’re up to the month before the test. I stop learning new things, and go back and review everything that I’ve studied up to this point. It’s a textbook and a half of review, and I’m glad I did it. There were plenty of vocabulary words I had forgotten and important grammar issues I had totally forgotten about.
The Friday before the test, I do one last online practice test, just a short one on grammar. I, again, get a big, fat, ZERO. Again, worse than if I had just marked all Bs. I then go to the list of kanji (Japanese characters)I need to know and realize that I don’t know lots and lots of them. I know about 250 from my textbook, and the test requires 280, so, since they only require 50% to pass, I figured I was in the clear. Well, my textbook did not teach me the same ones the Japanese test makers think I should know.
At this point I’m much less confident. I don’t know the right kanji, my grammar skills are non-existent, and I’m pretty sure I WON’T pass. I spend all day Saturday and Sunday morning skimming the new kanji so I can recognize them, and reviewing more grammar (particles!).
The test starts at 12:30 on Sunday, and by 12:15, almost everyone is in the room, ready to start. We have assigned seats, and we clear our desks of everything except our test voucher, a few pencils, an eraser, and a watch. The administrator walks up and down the row checking our faces to our test photo and handing out the question packet and answer sheet. At 12:45, we finally begin.
I am glad that I spent that last few days in review. Almost everything I reviewed is somewhere on that first portion of the test. There are 30 minutes and 35 questions, and the kanji part is relatively easy. I answer all the questions that I’m sure I know first, then count them. There are 18 questions that I’m almost positive I got right. That’s half. That’s passing! I finish the test, guessing on the rest of them, but making pretty good guesses, I think. I walk out of the room with a smile on my face. I notice that lots of people aren't smiling. In fact, I glance around once we've done, "pencils down!" and I notice that lots of people didn't have watches with them. They must not have known that the time was up, because plenty of people have questions with no hole at all filled in.
Jon was waiting for me outside of the building, as he went with me to the testing area to support me. He had walked to McDonald’s and gotten me a cheeseburger and a coffee to keep me from getting hungry or sleepy. He’s wonderful. One of the questions had been to correctly identify the kanji for “to wait,” so I chalk that up to him.
I felt really good going back in to take part two. It was a 60 minute reading portion. I’m a good reader, and my reading skills have transitioned pretty easily in my other language (Spanish). I got stellar scores on my practice reading tests. I love reading.
I still love reading… English.

Boy, this part of the test kicked my butt. It started with the classic Japanese test question, where they take a sentence, break it into four pieces, jumble it up, and you have to put it in order. I’m very bad at this. When I see my middle school students doing these types of questions in English, I struggle to help them figure it out….in my own language. So, I figured I would skip those, and go to the reading passages. Well, those took a long time. One reading question would focus on one paragraph of reading. So, in order to answer one reading question, I had to read a full paragraph of Japanese, then read the question and the multiple choices, another five sentences in Japanese. Just for one question. I read as quickly as I could, even skimming some reading sections, and I still had to guess on about 8 questions, just filling them in randomly. I did not leave with a smile.
There was another half hour break where Jon and I went for a relaxing walk and he talked me up, and then I went in to take the listening section. I don’t know, it’s all a blur by this point. Maybe I got 50%? There were only three multiple choices to choose from for about half the questions, so that really helped pull my random guessing score to 33% rather than 25%.
I had a hard time with this test because of its 50% pass rate. I’m used to the US, where 70% is usually the pass rate. When you walk out of a test, you know whether you knew most of the answers, so you know if you passed or not. But here, you could conceivable only know 35% of the answers, guess randomly on the remaining 65%, get 25% of those right, just from random guessing, and still pass the test! Knowing my track record of guessing, I’m not betting on that, but I still don’t know.
Also, I won’t find out if I passed till I get my results in the mail in Feb, two months after taking the completely scan-tron test. What, are they going to check them by hand? And then deliver them by carrier pigeon?

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Atheists in Foxholes

I have been an atheist for about four or five years now, and I'm proud of it. I like telling people about it because it really is a part of who I am. Being an atheist has made me so much happier than I ever was when I was trying to force myself to believe in god.

I've heard a lot of family and friends say things to me like, "When you run into trouble, you'll run back to god," or "There are no atheists in foxholes!" (I've also have plenty of family and friends say that they're happy that I'm happy and let's make brownies.)

I visited the Freedom from Religion website, and saw this article posted,

I copied and pasted the poem below that was inscribed on the monument, written by Alice Shiver.

Atheists in Foxholes

Atheists in foxholes, some say they are myths,
Creations of the mind who just don’t exist.

Yet, they answered the call to defend, with great pride.
With reason their watchword, they bled and they died.

They took Saratoga from the British crown,
Secured America’s freedom at the Battle of Yorktown.

From Sumter to Appomattox, fields flowed with their blood.
When the cannons grew silent, the flag proudly stood.

From the Marne to the Argonne, in trenches and tanks,
They defeated the Germans -- the whole world gave thanks.

They were bombed at Pearl Harbor, fought on to Berlin.
Many freethinking women served along with the men.

Still war keeps erupting -- Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
Where is the peace that eludes people so?

It is broken by tyrants who bear crosses and creeds,
That overshadow reason with hate and cruel deeds.

So atheists prevail until your work is complete.
Mothers mourn, children cry, and bigots plan your defeat.

By air, land, and sea, you answer freedom’s call.
Without god or faith, you seek liberty for all.

The thing that strikes me about atheists during wartime, is their bravery. See, religious soldiers believe that when they die, they go to a better place. They think that they and all their loved ones will be together again in eternity. They don't want to die, but it's not the worst thing, right?I mean, they believe heaven is awesome, don't they?

Atheists know that this life is the ONLY one we have. They know that when they die, it's finished, there's nothing else. They won't be able to see the fruits of their valor from a cloud on heaven. They know they aren't going to see any eternal rewards from their sacrifice. Their atheist loved ones will have to live with their death, knowing there is no hope of ever seeing them again. Don't you think that requires more bravery, more morality, more commitment, more honor from a person?

I don't mean to diminish anyone's sacrifice or devotion. Any brave, moral soldier gets my respect, regardless of religious affiliation/lack of affiliation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A few days ago, I went camping with a few friends, including my husband, Jon. We went to the island of 大島(Oshima). On the ferry to the island, I even saw two dolphins jump out of the water! The trip was off to a good start. We hiked over the top of about a dozen mountains to get to the opposite side of the mountain so we could see a windmill and lighthouse. Neither of them are things I particularly care about seeing, and both were surprisingly disappointing. However, the joy was in the journey, right, right? My bag carrying the tent, food, and so forth got pretty heavy around the fifth hour of tromping up and down mountains. The views were spectacular and it was great to be surrounded by trees and birds.

The sun started going down just as we noticed some cows rounding the side of a mountain. That explains the cow splats on the trail. I was wondering about that.

We walked a fair ways away from the cows to find a camp site and started gathering wood for a fire. By the time we got around the setting up our tent it was already almost dark. We pooled our food and had a delicious dinner of salad, sausage, and so forth. Just as Jon is putting the chicken wings on the grill…I hear a creepy noise coming from the darkness. I dismissed it as my imagination…until I heard it again, it was definitely an animal and it was definitely coming closer. I said, “Hey, someone shine a flashlight over there.” Someone obliged and lit up one black cow only ten feet away from me. It also lit up about seven other cows facing us. I thought, “Hey, they’re just cows, right?” I shouted at them and clapped my hands a bit to get them to go away.
The lead cow tossed its head, stamped its feet and as it was getting worked up, the light from the flashlight glinted off its nose ring. The surrounding lady cows stood calmly watching us. At that point, I stated edging towards the fence behind our campsite. It was a decorative fence, not made for keeping the cows out, but it was better than nothing. “I think we should go behind the fence guys. You don’t have to, but I’m going to.” I was going to let this bull trample my tent, eat the food, whatever he wanted. At that point, a much braver (and perhaps more experienced) friend shouted louder than I had, clapped his hands louder than I had, and called the bull’s bluff. The cows ran off into the night and I came back from behind the fence. The rest of the trip occurred without incident.

Reading in English class

A while ago I was watching an English teacher teach new words to some beginning English students. These students had a vocabulary of about 25 English words and had just mastered writing the alphabet a week earlier. Now, they were repeating after the teacher and looking at various phrases in the book, Good morning, Nice to meet you, and Are you from America? They were also studying additional individual words like, Canada, I’m, and not.
The students were looking at the phrases or words and repeating after the teacher as they attempted to learn to read these words. Three weeks later, most of them still couldn’t read (much less understand) the simple phrase, I’m not from Canada. Why? They had worked so hard! They had reviewed and repeated and completed about 18 workbook pages involving those very words! What could be wrong?
First, the students had no knowledge of phonics. They had learned to write the alphabet, say the ABCs, and they had learned one word which correlated to each letter, for example, A/Ant, C/Car, or I/ Ink. As far as I’ve seen, the teachers don’t even mention th, ch, and sh.
Second, the students were never (and have never to this date in any classroom I’ve observed) been asked to read something on their own. They ALWAYS listen to the teacher pronounce it before they are asked to “read” it.
Finally, they were exposed to very little actual English. An entire class period might revolve around learning only four new words. Another class period might involve only a minute grammar point. The language of the classroom is 95% Japanese. There were no stories, songs, picture books, etc. to expose the students to more English.
The problems with this style of learning are clear. The letter/word correlation is not all that helpful. In their first unit, they learn A makes the sound for Ant….then they learn that A makes a completely different sound for the words in Are you from America? The I in Nice to meet you, isn’t pronounced like the one in Ink, the C isn’t pronounced like the C in Car. Furthermore, the ABCs is a pretty outdated and detrimental way of teaching letter-sound correspondence. Although the letter D does make the d sound, the letter Y rarely makes a Y (why) sound. How can students be expected to figure out that H generally doesn’t make an ech sound, or that Window isn’t pronounced double u-indo-double u?
Another problem is that students are never asked to actually read a new passage without first hearing it pronounced. Therefore, they never build the ability to actually read something on their own. Even students in their third year of studying English struggle to read familiar vocabulary rearranged into a new sentence. The students are never asked to, “sound it out,” a phrase most western adults remember from their elementary school days. In fact, the idea of trying to read a new word through guessing at each letter’s sound is completely foreign. Students never learn phonics rules like, tion is pronounced shun, that a C followed by E makes the S sound, and they never see lists of words, like cat, mat, hat, pat, to drill the at sound.
Now, some teachers (who teach English to native English speakers) nowadays are actually doing much less phonics in the classroom to teach students to read. They believe that there are too many exceptions to the rule when it comes to English language spelling. It’s true, for every rule you can teach about phonics, there are a dozen words that are exceptions to the rule. It’s very confusing. So these teachers instead expose the student to LOTS of written media and expect the students to just figure it out. The students are read massive amounts of books, they listen to books on tape, they practice reading new text aloud in groups, they are encouraged to try to write prodigiously, even if the spelling is wrong, etc etc etc. This method has some very promising results. However, you may have noticed that the English Language Learners I work with are not exposed to all that much English. They cover two pages a week in their text book and three or four pages in their workbook. A page opened at random in the middle of the first year textbook has 18 English words on it. The workbook is about the same. That is simply not enough exposure to English to help the students learn to read.
So WHY? Why are the teachers teaching it this way? Didn’t THEY have to learn to read? Don’t they know how ineffective this all is?
Then…then…then it all came together one day when I saw the students copying kanji (Japanese characters) in their notebooks for Japanese class. The English teachers here are teaching English reading the same way they learned Japanese reading. In Japanese they do have an alphabet, but starting in first grade they begin learning the characters that make up the bulk of written text. A Japanese high school graduate knows about 2,000 kanji. Each character has to have its pronunciation memorized. You can’t “sound out” a character as you can a word written with an alphabet. You have to learn the kanji through rote memorization. ..much like the teachers are teaching each new English word as something that needs to be learned through rote memorization.
They are limiting their students’ English potential by inferring that new English words are learned the same way a kanji is! Their students are left thinking that if they don’t recognize the word from sight, they don’t know it. Period.

Friday, July 22, 2011

6 reasons Why it Sucks to Live in Other Countries

As a kid, I grew up wanting to explore the world. I wanted to fashion saddles for giraffes in Kenya, camp in the Amazon and chat in Mandarin with the locals over a bottle of Qingdao. So, when the opportunity presented itself for me to teach English in Korea for a year, I jumped at the chance. A year later, I jumped at the chance to live in Ecuador, later China, and currently Japan. I’m living the dream.
Sometimes the dream sucks—
Six Reasons Why it sucks to Live in Other Countries.
1 – You have no Privacy
Now, throughout this article, I’m talking about living in the following specific countries—South Korea, Ecuador, Taiwan, China, and Japan, overwhelmingly Asian countries. I hope to add live in more countries in South America (Peru) and at least one country in Africa (maybe Kenya). So, for me, it sucks to live in other countries that are drastically different from my own, somewhere where I don’t speak the language, the culture is different, the standard food looks like something you’d only eat on a dare, and you probably don’t look like everyone else.
So, first of all, other counties aren’t like America in their hiring practices. They can and do ask for things like photos before they will hire you, ensuring that they only hire attractive people who fit their stereotype for the type of job they want. You can probably guess which race they want to work at a hip-hop clothing store, regardless of qualifications.
So, before you can get a job in most Asian countries, you have to send them a photo and a list of any health issues and tattoos, often you have send things like your height/weight ratio too. A friend of mine in Korea pissed off his employers pretty badly by showing up and having the audacity to be ethnically Asian. He had pulled one over on them by dying his hair blond and wearing glasses for the photo he sent in, and his John Smith style name made them think he was of European descent….which is what they wanted. When he showed up, being completely qualified to teach English, they only begrudgingly kept him around, having already paid for his airfare and the other teacher having left for Australia already.
Now, once you get the job, you have to sign an agreement to act as a representative of the company at all times. This can mean not getting hammered in public on a Friday night in case one of your English students’ parents sees you, or this can mean you have to pretend to be straight to everyone you work with.
In addition to this agreement, you have to sign paperwork telling your company where you’re going on vacation, and where you can be reached at all times, even if you’re a 42 year old married professional with kids of your own. Sometimes they will even require you to fill out a form asking permission to leave the city! See, the company you work for is “responsible” for you while you’re in that country. And since most apartments won’t rent to foreigners, your company often sets up your apartment, meaning that if they decide to fire you for making the company look bad….you have to immediately move out of your apartment.
Finally, you most likely look different than everyone else and talk different from everyone else. This means that every time you have a casual conversation on the bus, everyone is listening to you, talking about you, judging you, and remembering what you do so they can tell their friends later. It means people don’t feel shy about staring directly at you for an uncomfortable period of time. When you ask your co-worker how to say in Mandarin, “Stop staring at me,” she’ll respond, “Well, they’ve never seen a foreigner before, so if you’re uncomfortable, you should move away.” It means that people walk past you in silence and then once they’ve passed you, they shout “hello!” then laugh crazily and run away…this way they can tell their parents they met a foreigner! A real live foreigner! It means that all of your neighbors are counting how many days your laundry hangs outside and when your husband comes home from the bar, and how many choco pies you bought at seven in the morning, and “Do you think that odd foreign lady is pregnant?” but, “No, it’s just the choco pies.” It means that if you want to lay in the park and read a book, you can’t get through a page without someone coming up and asking to take a picture with you.

2 - You become a little baby infant.
Remember the last time you walked up to your toddler nephew who doesn’t remember you from last Christmas and you picked him up and he screamed and pushed away? And you smiled and tried to introduce yourself and get him to remember you? But he just wanted to be left alone with his toys? So you dumped him down and scowled about what a little shit he was? You’re that nephew when you go abroad! You walk down the street and an old woman runs up to you, grabs you by the shoulders and turns you so you’re facing her husband who is going to snap a photo of the two of you. You reflexively jerk away and she smiles at you and grips you tighter while gesturing for her husband to take the photo already. You turn away from the camera, shout “bu yao!” (I don’t want it!) in her face and stomp away furiously. Your husband, who saw it all, tells you that the old lady was super pissed at YOU for walking away and ruining her picture.
The worst part is that in addition to everyone treating you like a baby, unless you can fluently speak the language and read like a pro, you actually do turn into a baby. I studied Spanish for three years in high school and a semester in college, and when I had a layover in Panama, I almost went to jail because I couldn’t answer the question, “Que contiene esta bolsa?” One stomach x-ray later, I was cleared to put my clothes back on and continue on my way to Quito.
You need help for EVERYTHING. And don’t kid yourself about how long it takes either. The US Government ( says that to become competent, even if you only want to be halfway competent, you still need to spend between 600 to 2200 hours studying, like at school, in a class, in addition to homework and conversation practice, not just half-assing it with some language tapes on the plane.
This means you need help going to the bank, setting up a cell phone, filling out paperwork for your visa, everything. It means that even if you have a Ph. D. in Understanding Very Complex Ideas back home, in Ecuador, when you go out to eat, you have to point at a dish at a nearby table and mime eating in order to not starve. It means that every time you get mail, you have to keep every scrap and bring it to someone who can tell you that this piece is ok to throw away, but this piece is actually your residence tax and you’ll get deported if you don’t go to the convenience store to pay it.
Don’t worry though, you’ll soon start to pick up simple phrases. As soon as a single “Konnichiwa,” “Ni hao,” or “Annyonghaseo,” comes out of your mouth, people fall over themselves in shock that you can speak their language! They marvel that you said hello and praise you endlessly. They whisper excitedly over your ability to say ONE WORD and gasp when you pick up chopsticks and put food in your mouth. They stare at you in awe as though every single two year old in Asia doesn’t already use chopsticks and compliment you wildly when the food goes in your mouth instead of down your shirt.
See, not only do you actually behave like a child in some aspects, looking the wrong way when crossing the road, walking into the door because you don’t know the symbol for pull, but everyone sees you as so backward and simple-minded that they treat you like a child, taking your photo without permission, complimenting you on your 17 word vocabulary, and walking you to the bathroom instead of just pointing at the sign.

3 – It’s a Pain in the Ass
Living abroad is a pain in the ass. Besides finding and applying for the job, and costs of moving and getting rid of all your stuff, or storing your stuff, there are hidden pains just waiting to attack. For example, there is no craig’s lists or thrift sales. Back home when you want a couch, you know how to get one,
Well, congratulations, you just moved to Korea. Where do you go for your things? Either you go to the expensive furniture store and buy everything brand-new….when you won’t get your first paycheck for a month….and you don’t know how long you’ll stay since you’re welcoming dinner featured live baby octopuses.
You can wait till another foreigner moves away and they might give you some of their pots or pans, bookshelves, TV etc, but rest assured, no one is moving until you’ve been there nine months already, so when they move, you find yourself with four book shelves and no books, and an extra bed. Then, three months later, when you’ve decided to move back to America, you realize why they were so excited to give you their bulky furniture. It costs, as they say, a rice paddy AND the ox to get rid of bulky furniture.
You get sick almost immediately and might very well stay that way for eight months. At the top of my friend’s “Things I won’t miss about Ecuador” list was “pooping blood for three months.”
Moving on, it takes forever to get the simplest things done. Because you don’t speak the language fluently, a simple trip to get a re-entry visa so you can go home for Christmas and be let back in the country after New Years takes hours, even after you went online and printed off an English translation of the form. You find the grocery stores that carry peanut butter, tortillas, and pickles, and since I those things are spread out over three different stores, grocery shopping take a full weekend. You can’t go to ATMs after six in Japan (because they close—no I don’t know why an ATM would close at six) and you can’t go to ATMs after seven in Ecuador (because you’ll immediately get mugged, and maybe stabbed), so these little things all add up to make it a much bigger pain in the ass to live abroad than at home where you know where to get the things you need.

4 - No friends
It can be really hard to make friends if you’ve moved abroad by yourself.
Back to that old issue, you don’t speak the language. Sure, more people are studying English in China right now than speak English in the whole world, that doesn’t mean they can speak it either. How’s your high school Spanish? (Que contiene esta bolsa?) I have found it pretty rare to find a local (outside of the tourism business) in Taiwan/Mexico/Japan/China/Korea/Ecuador/Greece, who can have a conversation in English. And remember how it takes a year to become half-way competent? You still can’t be casual friends with someone with that level of Japanese. Once you’ve exhausted the topics in your first year textbook (The book is on the table…I’m 28 years old.) the conversation kind of stalls.
So maybe you find a local who can speak a little English and wants to be your friend. It goes really well, until you notice that she introduced you to her other friends as, “Look at the foreigner!” And then all anyone wants to talk about is “What surprised you the most when you came to Japan?” and how pretty your blond hair is, and how they pay so much for English lessons, but now they can quit those and YOU can teach them! Let’s take a picture together!
Also, other foreigners who have lived in the country forever, maybe they married a Taiwanese man or something, and speak both English and Mandarin fluently, and would be the best kind of friend to have…..they don’t want to be your friend. Most people who live abroad do so for a year or two. Would you go out of your way to make friends with someone who was going to move away in a year or two? Someone who would always be asking for translation help? No, you’d make Taiwanese friends who were going to stick around and could go to the DMV on their own.
The pool of foreigner friends to choose from is shockingly small. When I lived in Korea, there were a total of seven foreigners living within a 30 mile radius. So, even if the Scottish guy was a complete dick when the English lady teared up when England lost the penalty kick in the 2006 World Cup.

Apparently this matters

…even if the South African guy gets kicked out of most bars for bothering cute young women as soon as he has a few beers, even if the American couple make you a little queasy with their open relationship. Despite these things, you are all friends. In that group of people, you’ll probably meet one or two people that you have a real connection with, but they’ll move back to Australia after six months and you’re stuck going out to see Harry Potter dubbed into Korean with the Scottish guy.
Finally, international travel is expensive. So is taking time off of work. So, obviously your relationships back home are going to suffer when you only see them for two weeks throughout the year. You need to know that despite promises made in blood, no one will actually come and visit you. NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON. Maybe if I had moved to an English-speaking/mosquito free/Beach resort in Amsterdam or a hotel offering free giraffe rides on the sunny coast of Canada, maybe more people would have followed through on their promise to come and visit. In 5 years of living and traveling abroad, nary a friend has visited me, even with my offers of a free bed, free food, and pre-killed baby octopuses.

5 – You Feel Bad
Maybe you’re going to move somewhere to make a difference in the world! When I moved to Ecuador to volunteer with the United Nations, I was full of wide-eyed innocence about how I was going to change the world. I bought bags of apples and handed them out to the street kids, I gave my spare change to teens with babies begging on the corner. I taught English to refugee families being relocated to Canada. I volunteered with the Goddamn United Nations. However, life wasn’t always so sunny. Within a few weeks, I had learned that the more money I gave little kids clambering to shine my shoes, the less likely their parents were to send them to school. School COSTS money you see, and shining shoes all day brings MAKES money.
A gang of little boys under 15 years old attacked me, stole my bag of apples, yanked an apple out of a toddler’s hand, and pinched my ass on top of it. There is no greater humiliation than getting harassed by a little 15 year old shit-head who doesn’t even have the decency to run away, instead sauntering away with his group of 7 friends laughing at you while chomping on your apples you had bought for the refugees.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my idealism slowly faded and one Friday I found myself stepping over a homeless old woman in my new high heeled sandals on my way to the bar with my friend and moaning about how the ATMs gave me 20s AGAIN! See, in poverty-stricken Ecuador, no stores have change for such a big bill. We’d have to walk all the way across town to the rich people grocery store with security guards and go to three different registers to buy three different packs of Chiclets. As soon as I realized who I had become, I re-devoted myself to my work with the United Nations but I did have relapses.
The other part of the feeling bad factor is learning that lots of people don’t like Americans. People outside of the Middle East, educated, handsome people that you thought you had a chance with really don’t like Americans. Sometimes that have good reason, as the US Government and its people have a history of sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong. Sometimes they don’t have a good reason, as the US Government and its people have a history of helping out other countries when they get into jams. However, once you start traveling, you find out that only 13% of Mexicans say nice things about America, only 34% of Japanese people feel good about Americans, and even in Australia, only 37% of people have a positive attitude towards Americans. What did we ever do to you Australia?
I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, if they are going to judge me just based on what country I’m from instead of getting to know me, then they are the ones that are missing out.

"I didn't even want to go to the stupid birthday party."

6 - Can’t get the things you’re used to
No, I don’t just mean you can’t get Taco bell or recognizable pizza hut. I also mean that you can’t find macaroni and cheese, or other foods you take for granted. Apparently Root Beer and Ranch are only eaten in the USA, which I suspect is the real reason for illegal immigration. You’ll find out once you travel a little bit that Mexican food is only made in Mexico. You can’t get guacamole or tacos in Puerto Rico or Ecuador, unless you’re at a Mexican restaurant.


Did you know that everyone every where all the time eats rice? Central and south America and all of Asia eat rice for every meal. Something I never appreciated about the USA was our great variety in food choices. When I ask, “What do you want tonight?” you can answer, “Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Indian, etc.” If we live in China and I ask you “What do you want tonight?” The answer better be Chinese, or you’re gonna be unhappy. Also, cross off every image of Chinese food you have in your head from Chinese buffets and Panda Forest. China doesn’t have fortune cookies, cream cheese wontons or chicken without bone fragments and beaks mixed in it.

But besides food, what else can’t you get? How about a reasonable conversation with a person about blocked internet in China? When you bring up how frustrating it is not to be able to post photos of the time you went camping on the Great Wall on Facebook, and the fact that you don’t know anyone’s e-mail address ever since you freely gave your soul to Facebook, they offer you a great solution! Join Renren!


They’ll encourage you with a totally straight face! It’s the largest social network in the world! It’s 100% in Chinese! It’s a great way to keep in touch with your Chinese friends and the Chinese Government! As for your old friends in America, just invite every single one of them to make an account on renren (instructions in Chinese!), then send a friend invite ( 我们可以交朋友吗?), then you won’t have any problems, and you won’t be bothered by all that porn on the internet, which is the only thing the government blocks anyways. THE ONLY THING.
But besides China and their crazy internet censorship, lots of other great sites are blocked outside of the USA and Canada, sites like Pandora, Hulu, and Netflix.
Also, depending on which country you’re visiting, the following things are difficult/impossible to find.
Deodorant (Prepare to have the following conversation with store clerks in Korea.)
You: Where can I find deodorant?
Clerk: What’s that?
You: It’s something you put on your armpits every morning.
Clerk: What? Why do you need that?
You: Everyone uses it, to keep you from sweating too much and smelling bad.
Clerk: Do you mean that when people smell bad, they, they, just cover it up? American people are so gross that you use a product EVERYDAY knowing that you will smell so badly that you will need to cover it up? That’s disgusting. Take a shower.
You: Well, Canadians use it too…..
Birth Control Pill
Clothes dryer
Shoes for anyone with larger than average feet

Monday, June 20, 2011

Pet Store in Japan

Jon got some pet beetles the other day and we went to the pet store to buy some plastic cages with very secure lids for them. Right now they are larvae, but soon enough they will turn into flying rhino beetles who will need separate cages. At the store I saw that you could buy A BAG OF LEAVES for your pet rhino beetles for US$ 7.50.

At this same pet store you could buy this adorable puppy for US$ 3,491.50. You could also buy a Labrador puppy or a grey kitten for US$ 2,244.63 each.

There are dozens of pet strollers available in all sorts of sizes and colors.

Here is a fitting room. You can see racks and racks of dog clothing in the background. I would say dog clothing takes up about half of the pet store's entire floor space.

I'm afraid to visit a baby store.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Language Difficulty Scale

I used to think that it was a bit stupid when people would say, "Oh this particular language is sooo hard to learn."

ALL languages are hard! It takes lots of work to learn ANY language! All languages have their own unique traits and complex grammar structures and pronunciation difficulties. And yeah, some languages are a little easier or harder than others depending on your native language, but it shouldn't make too much of a difference.
So I always thought lists like the following one
were pretty bunk.

The website lists languages in order of difficulty for English speakers.
Afrikaans, Dutch, and Spanish are listed as some of the easiest languages, taking only 600 class hours to reach "General Professional Proficiency in Speaking and General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3)."

Bosnian and Nepali are in level two, taking 1100 class hours to achieve the same competency....and Japanese falls under level three. It says that it should take "88 weeks (2200 class hours)(about half that time preferably spent studying in-country)" to get to a level three speaking and reading ability.

I am much more of a believer now that certain languages are MUCH harder then others for English speakers. For example, I believe that Japanese is almost four times harder for me than Spanish was. I half-assed learning Spanish for two years in high school. I took one semester in college, then four years later I moved to Ecuador. Within three months of living there, I was pretty good. I felt comfortable going to the immigration office, renting an apartment, meeting new people, having conversations about the upcoming elections, and telling jokes. It helped that my boyfriend and I spoke Spanish to each other and I was taking 10 hours of Spanish classes per week, but it really wasn't that hard!

I assumed that when Jon and I moved to Japan, I would pick up Japanese pretty much following the same time-scale. I knew that reading and writing would take longer to master, but speaking and listening should be ok, especially since Japanese and Spanish pronunciation is actually pretty similar (in the global scheme of languages). I work in a Japanese speaking environment and I study about 90 minutes a day. I've been here 8 months now, so that's about 500 hours of study. Now, those are hours spent studying on my own, not in a a formal classroom setting, but as a language teacher myself, I feel that my time studying is spent as productively as possible. I go to Japanese class once a week and I also meet with a language exchange partner to practice conversation once a week.
However, I find myself still struggling to express myself in the simplest way. I can't understand people even when they are trying to speak slowly and use basic words. I can't put the words I know together to form a comprehensible sentence.
Today I made an appointment using Japanese at a clinic and it was a pretty nerve-wracking, but successful experience. At least, I think it was successful, I'll find out Monday at 3:00 if my name is actually on the list.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japanese Library card!

Jon and I went to the library today and I got a library card. It was great, just like being back in a library in the states. I have always loved visiting libraries, I love the how quiet, peaceful and interesting they are. You could probably say they are my church, and I haven't been inside one in six months!

I especially loved this trip because Jon and I spent our whole time in the children's section and there was a smiley baby crawling around on the floor as I flipped through picture books. These are the two books I checked out.

The orange one is called, "Oscar and Hoo," and I understood probably a third of the vocabulary, I didn't start the purple one yet, but I liked the pictures. I'm going to read "Oscar and Hoo" first, and I noticed that many of the words I didn't know occurred again and again, so hopefully once I spend the first few pages looking up unfamiliar vocabulary, I can spend the final 20 pages just reading.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

(Most Accurate) Description of Universe Academy in Miyakonojo Japan

I already wrote a post about working at Universe academy, but now I'm going to really share my feelings on the subject. The other day the management made a comment about how hard it was to replace me and how stressful their life has been trying to find someone to pick up my contract because I’m leaving six months early. At the time I didn't think much of it, but a few hours later, while mopping spit off the floor, I got really angry. THEY were stressed that they had to find another foreigner they could trick into working there? What about my stress level getting tricked into one of the worst jobs I've ever had? What about how hard it was for ME to work a job I hate- that I wouldn't have taken in a second had they given me an accurate description of the job beforehand?

I got in contact with the previous teachers at Universe and I have realized that it's not just me- every teacher who has ever worked there hated it. In fact, we e-mail back and forth quite often, two or three times a week. Why would someone who left this job a year ago, or 6 months ago still have that much pent-up bitterness towards this job? Why do we all hate it? Let me count the ways....

First of all, when you get there in the morning, you've probably got bus duty. It blows. I outlined just how much it blows in an earlier post. Then you arrive at school and all 33 kids have to get changed from their arrival outfit to their play outfit. 13 of the children are four years old and don't need any help. 8 of the children need pretty minimal help; more help is needed when their parents dress them in dress shirts with tiny pearl buttons that their toddler hands can’t handle. (On days when more than five children are wearing these shirts, I’m positive the parents are angry at us for some reason.) That leaves about 15 students who need help changing clothes and maybe a diaper change. Divide that number by the number of teachers, and that makes about five students per teacher. Sounds ok, except one teacher has to stand by the door and constantly greet each parent, and one teacher has to keep the new 20-month-old twins from trying to escape out the front doors and track down Mommy and Daddy. The final teacher has the rest of the 15 students to herself (it's a sexist place too, they would never consider hiring a man to take my position, a fact I didn't know till I arrived), and she tries to get the kids changed from pull-ups to daytime underwear and from dress skirts to shorts while ignoring the twins who are taking turns screaming at the top of their lungs, "Mama ga IEEEEEE!! Mama ga IEEEEE!" ("Mom is GOOOOOOOOD!" The unspoken insult here being, "and you're not.")

Ok, so once the kids are changed from their stupid arrival uniforms that serve no purpose into their play uniforms that they wear ALL DAY and they should just ARRIVE IN, it's recess time. It's time for them to go outside and burn off all their energy and build strong motor skills and climb and swing and kick soccer balls. Actually, since their play uniforms are shorts and shirts and they don't bring jackets, even in winter, either they have to be freezing cold outside, or I have to put my foot down and allow them to play inside because it is too cold for me to be outside in my long pants, warm winter coat, gloves and hat, much less for them to be outside in shorts.

Yes, they wear shorts all winter long. Being cold builds character. (No, the management isn’t Calvin’s dad.) Between the cold weather, the nearby volcanic eruption (the ash is dangerous to breathe), and the rainy season, the students have had to spend about 75% of their recess time inside over the past two months. Inside recess is 100% horrible. Try keeping 33 Japanese toddlers who spend all day watching ninja cartoons from running around and play fighting each other sometime. I am going to guess you'll give up after about 6 weeks and just let them run and fight, reasoning that they will fall down, get a little owie and be more careful next time. How do you think you'll feel after you pick up a crying two year old who ran face-first into the piano and now has to go to the hospital with a split lip? How do you feel now!?!?!?!
So, after recess, it’s the portion of the day where I most utilize my Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Languages. I lead calisthenics. Yep, the kids line up and I shout and model jumping jacks, touching my toes, arm circles, all those exercises that the two year olds can't do and don't really care about doing anyways, not when they can be pulling their shirts up and pretending to be sumo wrestlers.

After calisthenics, it's class time. I do my best, but it's disheartening to try to teach when I have two students still screaming "Mama ga IEEEEE!," two other kids sleeping in the front row, and when I try to plan a new activity, the management tells me I can't do it for some ridiculous reason. A few days ago we were studying body parts and I got some sidewalk chalk and swept the concrete behind the school and we were all going to trace each other on the concrete and point to the parts of the body....well, that activity got shut down because it would "make a mess and be impossible to clean up." You would have thought I was giving each kid a spray-paint can by the way the management freaked out.

So, after lesson time, it's lunch time. It's also spilling time, peeing yourself time, and making as much noise as possible time. The kids know the routine very well, they are supposed to:
-go to the bathroom
-get their chopsticks and cup
-sit down quietly and wait till I pour tea in their cup and give them lunch
-eat like human beings
-put away their lunch tray
-dump out any remaining tea and put water in their cups
-brush their teeth
-go to the bathroom again if needed
-sit on the floor pads and read books till naptime
Instead, it goes a lot like this
-ninja fighting
-chopstick swordfights
-spill tea all over the floor and each other
-spill food all over the floor and each other
-having refused to go to the bathroom earlier, take this opportunity to pee while sitting in their chair
-walk through the tea someone spilled earlier
-put away their lunch trays
-empty their cup of tea and get water for brushing their teeth
-spit water all over each other
-scrub their toothbrushes on the ground
-wrap their nap-time blankets around their necks to make capes
-run, wrestle, and scream on the naptime pads

Then, a very special version of hell begins. This lasts from about 11:45 till 12:30 (when I can finally escape for my hour lunch break.) There really is no hell quite like the hell of trying to get 33 excited kids to lay down and take a nap. You can try to have the older kids read books quietly till they get tired, (until the management forbids books during naps), you can try separating the kids so they can't play with each other, you can try laying your legs across two kids, holding two other kids down with two hands, and then taking away nap-time blankets as punishment for the kids who won't stop jumping up and down, shouting, "yatta!"...but if you're me, you'll take the coward's way out. You'll either pull a few kids out to a different room for private tutoring, or you'll grab the two worst kids, take them in a corner, physically hold them down and study Japanese flashcards while you ignore the rest of the little monsters and count the seconds until 12:30 when I can bike home.

At 1:30, (after an amazing lunch prepared faithfully every single day by my wonderful, loving and understanding husband, and then we watch the Daily Show or Colbert Report- gotta keep up to date on Egypt and Wisconsin) I regretfully drag myself from my house and bike to school....arriving a few minutes later and later each month. I go into the classroom and take note of what kind of day it is. Four days out of five, most of the kids are awake and talking, trying to be sneaky and play, throwing socks at each other, and waking up the kids who were actually (mercifully) sleeping, until they got woken up by a sock to the eye. One day out of five most of the kids will be sleeping and I can breathe easily for 20 minutes until it's wakeup time. I can even take a few minutes to work on something school related. The problem with that type of day is that the kids are sleeping so soundly that four or five of them will have peed themselves.

So, after wake-up time, it's recess again! Yatta! The kids don't want to bother with stupid rules, like this one,

"You have to go to the bathroom before you go outside."

So they try to sneak by and just go put their hats on and sit by the door. With 33 kids, it's not hard for one or two to sneak past you- but you always know who it was by the yellow puddle that surrounds them on the floor that spreads out and dampens the kids unlucky enough to be sitting next to them. Seriously, from now on the kids are getting sand in their tea cups.

After recess, the kids change from their play clothes into their POINTLESS arrival uniform. It was crazy enough in the morning, when kids are dropped off by their parents in the space of a half hour, but now all the kids are changing all at once, so it's twice as hard to deal with everything. Also, depending on my mood, either I've used up all my patience for the day, or I'm more patient than usual because I know the day is almost done...there's really no way of knowing which kind of day it will be.

Snack time goes about as well as lunch time and then it's story time. I've made one change to story time that leaves me with my sanity intact. Before, I would have the children sit in a half-circle on the ground in front of me while I read them stories...just like you remember from kindergarten. But this isn't kindergarten, this is a hard rock book reading and anyone lucky enough to get a front row seat is pushed over and climbed on by the kids behind them. Now, I make them sit in their chairs at tables. This makes it hard for the kids at the back to see the pictures, but at least no one is getting crushed.

Then, school is blessedly finished! Yay! I either have to stay and watch the kids whose parents don't show up till 6:30 (when I stop getting paid at 6:00, it makes it very hard to be civil to these parents), I have lesson prep time, or I have bus duty.

And the day is done. Finally. I only have one week left and I can't wait to be gone!

In other news, these sorts of occurrences also make life difficult:
-one of the few girls who actually ate all her lunch throws up all over herself and 12 backpacks neatly lined up for kids to grab on their way out the door
-the management leaves the doors to the school open all day, year round, even in winter. Apparently they like wearing their winter coats all day while also running the heater non-stop. Maybe energy is free in Japan?
-one of the three-year-olds will lean close to whisper something to me and at the last minute will sneeze directly in my mouth. This has happened not once, but twice.
-the kids will decide to pee on each other during nap-time. Why? Who knows?
-the management will tell you on Friday afternoon to be at school at 7:30 on Saturday morning for a fun (unpaid) day with the children.