By Korellia Schneider
As a foreign ex-pat residing in a largely homogeneous society, I have for the most part, grown accustomed to, and made peace with, the natural (and sometimes unnatural) curiosity that is sparked by simply being oneself and being here, in this island nation, of all places. Through various interactions with transplants and natives alike, I have come to learn that one of the easiest conversation-starters, in any language, is to ask, “Where are you from?”
I fulfill their expectations most of the time when I tell them of my American origins. “Where do you live in Japan?” they proceed to ask, once they know I am not a tourist.
And I hesitate for the briefest of moments.
My home away from home is little known amongst fellow foreigners. (Admittedly, I had never even heard of it before receiving my JET placement last year.) Amongst Japanese people, its reputation is based primarily on its tragic history in the Great East Japan Earthquake.
“Minamisanriku.” My answer often elicits a reaction of astonishment, sometimes tinged with pity.
By: Countee Volz
Preface: This account is from Countee’s experience with his first town event last summer (2013).
On a lovely summer day with the humidity only slightly below Central Florida levels, the town of Shikama came together for their annual ‘undoukai’ or sports festival. The undoukai is a tradition celebrated throughout Japan at various times in the summer and is one of the cornerstones of building memories for students at all levels – from elementary school to high school. What makes this one special was that this wasn’t a day for any one particular school but rather the entire town. Everyone was here to compete from 7 year old first graders to 70 year old grandmas and grandpas. They were here to strengthen the bonds of their town and their districts…and they were here to win.
This was my first event in Shikama. I had only been in town a little over a month and at that time was preoccupied with enjoying the first stages of culture shock, which in my case were rolling waves of wonder, euphoria, and soul-crushing panic. This seemed like a great opportunity for me to enjoy all of those emotions again as I stepped out to greet my town with only whatever Japanese I’d picked up in the last month or could remember from those college courses I took 5 years ago. The broken English conversations I was having with my out-of-town Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) and the monosyllabic grunts and pointing I’d been doing when shopping and eating out was really no longer sufficient. I had to go out there and actually talk to people. It’s my job after all.
By: Matthew Day
Preface: Matt was a frequent volunteer at Ganbaro Miyagi, which is an organization that has worked to provide mental health support to children affected by the 3/11 disaster. One of their main activities is running a weekend English camp where kids can interact with Japanese and foreign volunteers. Although the camp conducts some of its activities with a focus on learning English, the primary goal is for the kids to have fun and be exposed to internationalization. Please consider volunteering by checking out the organization’s website here (in Japanese) or by find the group on Facebook (in English)!
English should really be put in brackets, quotation marks or italics, but they did get the camp part correct, not to mention Miyagi. Having been on two camps now, I can vouch for the leadership, organization and skills with which Kishi (the coordinator) delegates. Some areas still need work but overall, it is an experience not to be missed.
We get to Sendai Station at seven to meet the children around eight. Volunteers find out their roles usually in this hour. This varies little for foreigners. Japanese volunteers are usually put in group leadership roles and all are given highly visual vests.
While I was hoping for blue again, this time I got jipped with yellow. Yellow on blue is not colour coordinating; my day was off to a poor start. Kids in line, all wearing the same vests looking like a bunch of potato fries, we got on the bus for a two-hour stint to Hanayama.