I'm not sure if it's a personal quirk, or an unremarked feature of all language learners' experience, but
after about a month of concentrated Japanese study, I found that alien phrases-- first short half-sentences, then steadily longer constructions-- had begun working their way into my daydreams, sticking there like burrs on my mind, floating unprompted to the surface when my mind wandered to hover on my lips like a banal, faintly unnerving mantra. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the word choice: I once spent an entire day stuck on the word <高等教育＞、(kōtōkyōiku, "Secondary Education"), still longer on the phrase <発信準備完了＞（hasshin-jyunbi kanryō, "Launch preparations complete!")-- as catchy a sentence as it is useless-- and I still find myself bemused when I let my mind wander for a second and find myself mumbling something like the Japanese word for <Artificial Coloring> inwardly.
This is the long way around to saying that I found myself turning over <歳月、人を待たず>
（saigetsu, hito o matazu- "Time waits for no man") over in my head the other day, and reflecting on how quickly, indeed, the time has gone. The higurashi sing from the trees at evening, and already, I find myself packing boxes for the trip home. The air is chill in the lunch room as everyone gets steadily more frazzled and stir-crazy-- less talking, and a lot more thousand-yard stare right into the depths of the spicy-squid-over-rice.
Not for me the moping stare if I can help it-- although the desk is full of chocolate almond wrappers and iTunes shows that I've been spinning through the works of Thomas Tallis a bit more than seems wholly healthy. High time for a mood boost--which brings us to this Thursday, when I signed up on short notice for a one-day AIU-elementary school exchange in Oga, located an hour north-west of Akita. It wasn't my first time-- as the only source for willing, enthusiastic, English speaking college students for several hundred miles, AIU's liason office runs dozens of such programs monthly, and I'd hit several before.
New educational standards now oblige Japan's mandatory English foreign language classes to start in elementary school, and what seems like almost all of the grade schools in the prefecture have, as a consequence, worked hard to set up one-day enrichment programs for their kids, enticing would-be English pronunciation and grammar models with bookstore gift cards and, (more importantly, as far as I'm concerned), the chance to spend some quality time with excited 1st through 6th graders, who, in my regrettably limited experience, rank high as good people to hang out with. And this time, I planned to actually get some pictures of the proceedings.
I slept on the bus ride north, along with the 5 or 6 other exchange kids who'd come along, waking more or less as we made it to the elementary school itself-- to see a double row of kids with flags had been dispatched to cheer us into the building, a slightly unexpected choice-- and kind of like being the President, if the receiving line was allowed to actually hit you from nose to knee as they waved you into the building!
Dropping our shoes off at the entrance, we forced our feet into the typical visitors' carpet slippers and made our way to the teachers' office for a briefing on the day's activities. In all my previous excursions, this was delivered by the principal, and only after, as guests, we'd been offered coffee or tea. Usually this was where I'd be pressed into service as a translator for my less-experienced classmates, so it was therefore a pleasant surprise to be met in the teacher's lounge by a tall Australian fellow, who introduced himself as Joshua. This was the school's assigned Assistant Language Teacher-- part of a government-sponsored program, JET, that assigns circuit-riding English-speakers to Japanese classrooms across the country to serve as bi-weekly conversation examples.Joshua explained that today we'd be running a couple of classroom sessions, then a late Tanabata themed event-- but first, lunch. Outside, I could hear the welcoming community quietly fidgeting. Joshua half seriously asked us if any of us had trouble with small children, before inviting in a representative from each of the elementary grades to show us (boisterously, by both arms,) to our rooms.
School lunch (only for elementary and I think some middle-schoolers-- high schoolers pack their own) is always eaten in homeroom here-- the lunchladies bring carts with trays and keep-warm buckets of food (rice, a daily vegetable, fish or some dumplings, milk-cartons and sometimes a bowl of miso soup), and two daily "lunch monitors" take turns to unpack the carts, (on one of my visits, the monitors put on cafeteria-lady smocks and hats first), and serve their classmates. Then everyone pulls their personal chopsticks out of their pencil case, busts out with an <ITADAKIMASU!> ("UNTRANSLATABLE GENERIC FOOD-THANKS RITUAL PHRASE!") and digs in, before washing up, brushing their teeth, and repacking the cart before the next period.
I was surprised, and almost a little bummed, when, before ordering me through the lunchline, the home-room teacher actually asked if I was a vegetarian and told me I'd get my lunch later-- but I still got to sit with a table-full of inquisitive 6th-graders and have a carton of milk for the first time in an age, while being bombarded with left-field questions ranging from my favorite color (current answer: orange), animal, (crow), Dragonball character (comedy answer obligatory) and number (what else but 42?) to my marital status. It was a shame that almost none of this happened in English-- the game was up as soon as I explained my diet.
It was clear, once we'd finished our lunches, that the school intended to make the most of its visitors-- we were brought en masse to the gym following lunch, and, before the cameras of the school administration, run through a rehearsal of our self-introductions (in English, this time), and, in an unexpected twist, asked to demonstrate how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors in English. What formal didactic purpose, exactly, was intended in demonstrating that Americans and Australians have a different set of phrases and timings for a schoolyard game will probably remain forever veiled in mystery (although, at a stretch, it can't be denied to work as a small-scale demo of linguistic-cultural diversity,) but we had a great time organizing a lightning RPS tourney, in which, I am pleased to say, I came in second.
The kids got ample chance to school me in the next event-- we were set, with paper, tape, and glue to make origami decorations for Tanabata. We were long past the holiday, but it made a perfect excuse to get everyone working together-- more so in my case, since my skill with origami is hilariously next to nil.
An "advanced" activity was set up as our final event of the day-- this too, rock-paper-scissors related. Divided into "ninja" (the kids) and "samurai retainers", (us), we were assigned to play rock paper-scissors in English-- the ninja having to defeat three ranks of "samurai" in a row-- to determine which of the children would depose the principal and become "English Shogun". Pictures make this easier to explain-- not least because of the excellent hats (imitating the samurai's traditional coif) we all got to wear:
Not a bad day, if I do say so myself.