Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Comedy lessons from 2 monkeys

I was talking to my mother on Skype when she said this line:

"There are these two monkeys --"

I stopped her right there. I had to write it down. Looking back at it last night, I got to thinking about why I stopped her, why I wrote it down, and why it was hilarious without even hearing the rest of the sentence.


There's a formula to comedy. That's not to say it's "formulaic" in the predictable, boring sense. Rather, there's a formula in the sense that there are things that are tried and true and work better than others. It would have been simpler, and quicker to say, "Two monkeys.." and then follow with the verb. But this particular type of phrasing instantly says telling a story, or better yet, a joke.

Certain characters are inherently funny. Certain situations immediately make you want to burst into laughter. Once again, you don't want to fall back on the predictable, but there's nothing wrong with using what works.


One way of being funny is to be absolutely ridiculous. No offence to monkeys, but they're inherently ridiculous. If the sentence had started with dogs or kittens or birds, it wouldn't have triggered my laugh reflex.

This guy claims he can go "Super Saiyan" (it's the term for powering up to the next level in Dragon Ball Z) and runs around in public places trying to acheive it. It's funny (and sad) because it's absolutely ridiculous.

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." Mel Brooks

The actual story my mother told was about two monkeys that have convinced themselves they own our back yard. She went on to tell me about a woman who'd just come out of the shower, only to have a monkey chase her around the house while she was wearing only a towel. Finally, she ran into a room and managed to shut the door. She was trapped in there, while the monkey sat outside the door and laughed at her, until her husband came home.

I expect that this experience must have been absolutely terrifying, but the entire time my mother was relating it, I just wanted to laugh. I mean wearing only a towel and being chased around by a monkey? Charlie Chaplin couldn't do better.


My mother, the Queen of non-sequitors went from politics to two monkeys. Humour can come from any juxtapositions that you wouldn't expect. A while back, I drew a reference to Mrs. Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. Mrs. Bucket is squarely middle-class, but she's convinced that she's high up all the social ladders. And even though she's hoity-toity, she's got a very working class background and her family has absolutely no behaviour at all. Much of the hilarity of the show comes from these two odd couplings. Either people act like she's middle class while she tries to act like she's in the upper class, or she causes some mess while trying to pretend that her blue-collar family isn't related to her.

I'm looking forward to tryin to implement these in my work. Let's hope I can get them to work. If not, there are always those two monkeys.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Not a book snob

I'm generally not a big fan of "the literary novel." And when you walk in these circles, something like that can be a tough pill to swallow. What's wrong with me, you start to wonder. Why can't I read books which extrapolate these deeper themes? And most importantly, I am not smart enough, because all the other smart people like this stuff.
The smart people like deep themes. The smart people like long, pretty words. The smart people like books which go out of their way to be lofty and convoluted. The smart people like books which hold themselves to a higher standard.

And I don't.

I think it's because I go to stories to be entertained. If I want to search for meaning in the midst of ambiguity, I'll read the type of poetry that does that. I love poetry. If I want lofty and convoluted, I'll pick up my copy of Socrates (in English or Spanish) or any of my copies of Kant's work. I love philosophising. (Clearly!)

But when I read, I read to be someone different, to meet kindred souls. to be a part of their lives, to experience new things, to remember my past, to see a possible future, to be drawn into another world. To love. To hate. To laugh. To cry. I read to be entertained. And I'm not entertained by ambiguity or themes or words longer than Pinocchio's nose. I'm entertained by great stories.

And if that great story happens to have a deep theme (power and control in Elana Johnson's POSSESSION, war and capitalism in HUNGER GAMES, environmental issues in Tahereh Mafi's SHATTER ME), I'm an even happier camper.

I'm not saying this to detract from "literary" works or the people who love them. Imagine a rocket scientist who had the appropriate sense of humour and only laughed at high-brow wit. Imagine he has a colleague who giggled every time she heard the word "breast." They're both still brilliant and their senses of humour are still valid. It's the same with reading.

It's fine if you love literary. People are entertained by different things. And people come to stories for other reasons: to be educated, to improve, to see a new point of view. If that's your chief purpose, then look for the stories that will help you get there. But ifyou're into the more commercial end, that's fine too.

Any book that achieves what you need of it, is a great book.

I'm not a book snob. And that's okay. 

How about you?Why do you read? Do you read "literary" or "commercial?" Do you ever feel ashamed of what you read? Do you ever feel pressured to read something different?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Barbados is da izbipple, but...

I love my country. We are amazing. 166 square miles. I heard once that was the same size as JFK. I never checked if it was true or not, but the fact that I can even wonder says a lot.

And even though we're just a pebble, we've had enough influence on the world that you can feel us. We gave the world a whole slew of singers/songwriters: Shontelle, Hal Linton, Charles D. Lewis, Eddie Grant, and the most famous, Rihanna. We gave you grapefruit. We gave you rum. WE GAVE YOU RUM! (lol)

And that's just what you guys see. We've got a reputation among the tourists as being some of the friendliest people on earth. Sometimes you'll meet a Brit on the beach, and it will be their 20th time in Bim (nickname for Barbados). They've probably spent more time there that I have!

And the life! It's a melting pot of deep, inborn African tendencies, years of British rule, and proximity to the US. Reggae and calypso music. The sing-song rhythms of our dialect. The movements of our dancing. The buses with personalities. (You have to catch one to understand what I mean.) The ever-present undertones of God and sex, sometimes at the same time. The different ideals for women. (Ooo, future Caribbean Context!)

I'm proud to be Bajan! (Proper denonym is Barbadian.)

But sometimes I wish I was from somewhere else.

Even though we're awesome and we've proven it time and again. Even though we're now on the list of Developed Countries - and possibly the smallest country on that list, mind you. Even though we've got all these things going for us. Sometimes it's hard being from an itty-bitty country.

Imagine if your country was so tiny that you could never be sure that someone would have heard of it. Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, you never have to explain what/where your country is. And if you do, you probably write that person off as an idiot. I mean, even in the back-bush of Japan where they know NOTHING about the outside world, they know about these countries.

And when you're an international citizen like I am, it's a pain in the neck. Like British drivers can easily convert to a Japanese license. Barbadians have to take the full driving test. Even though we use most of the same rules, and drive 95% Japan cars. Why? Because why would the Japanese government bother to check the road laws of Barbados for the less than 10 of us who live here? At least we've got Europe on our side now and can travel freely there.

It even has implications as a writer. Where do I submite my work? US? UK? Canada? The UK is most open to international. But my writing gels more with American styles. And when I name-drop, I name-drop US names. The only famous people I know in Britain are in the Royal Family or on soccer fields. (Oh, Prince Edward is in Barbados today. The royals seem to love it there. Especially Prince Harry.) And Canada? That's even worse. Apart from Justin Beiber, who everybody in the US has made sure to disclaim, famous Canadians are often thought to be American. And what happens when I write a Bajan story? One that doesn't go out of it's why to include norms from elsewhere? Who will publish that?

There's an old folk song that starts:

"Beautiful, beautiful Barbados,
Gem of the Caribbean Sea"

I know it's beautiful. I know we rock. I know that there are millions of people in the world who would love to live in the Caribbean, and be able to walk to the beach every evening after work if they felt like. But sometimes, I just wish...

(NB. I made up the word izbipple. It's a synonym for awesome. Feel free to use it. )

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why I'm only funny in person

I'm funny as hell.

I really never used to think about it. I mean I knew I was funny, but I thought everyone was. It was only two years ago, when I went to a retreat with other Caribbean nationals, that it really hit home that wasn't the case.  We had to pass around these little memos and write messages for different people. When I got my memo back, it was filled with, "You are so infectiously happy," and "I laughed til my face hurt all weekend, thanks to you."

This weekend was more of the same. I did another presentation on blogging for writers, this time for SCBWI Tokyo. Afterwards, a few of us headed to a restaurant for dinner. I was just talking my usual talk, but before long every one was laughing so hard, that we might have been afraid of getting kicked out if those guys weren't already used to us. Now I don't think I was the only funny one in the group, but I was definitely getting my fair share of cackles.

Enter: MS3. You'd think with all my fans rolling in the aisles, I'd be able to put some funny in my novels. But if I'm killing in real life, I'm dying on the page.  So I enlisted the help of a view Kindle editions about writing comedy and, apart from realising that there a million books on comedy for screen and stage but fiction is seriously lacking, they helped me uncover a few reasons why it's difficult for me to get the humour down.

1. The formalities

Y'all already know I grew up in Barbados, the most easterly place in the Caribbean (and the West - depending on how you define it). Barbados takes pride in being very formal. I often joke that we're more British than the Brits, with our love of ceremony. I mean, there must be a reason they call us Little England. Top that off with my family and their neuroses. I nicknamed my mother Mrs. Bucket, after the star of Keeping Up Appearances.

Despite me being a really laidback person in general, things like presenting and writing feel formal. It feels like I should speak or write properly. I'm able to let go of this enough to stamp my voice into my writing, but I think the formality is eating the humour.

2. Table tennis

There are different formats of comedy. For example, there's the funny monologue. One person talking, telling a funny story. That's not me. My funny bounces off others. It comes from hearing someone say something and either having an unusual thought or seeing a humourous spin. I never set out to be funny in informal situations. Someone says something and, next thing you know, I'm off and running and people are holding their sides and wiping their eyes.

3. Randomness v. Rehearsal

Like I said, my funny bounces off others. That feels totally natural to me. But orchestrating funny? That feels totally disingenuous. Like helping old women across the street to earn a Brownie badge. Or joining a charity expedition to get out of the office without using a vacation day.

As a co-pilot(/translator) on a passenger submarine, I was responsible for lots of bits of machinery, served as a second pilot on board, and periodically needed to use my French, Spanish and Italian. (I didn't speak Japanese back then.) In addition, co-pilots were often required to give tour spiels. Many of my colleagues used to joke all through their spiels. "A submarine is safer than an airplane because there are more planes in the sea than subs in the air!" But it always felt wrong for me.

Combine this with the formality bit from before, and anything I speak I come off as super-stiff and organised. And that's so not me.

4. BLAH!

When I was at the Coast Guard Academy, I played in the marching band. One of my friends had this way of randomly playing a bit of music really loud. An instructor told him that it was like you're walkin down the street and a guy is in front of you. Suddenly, the guy shrieks, "BLAAAAAAHHHHH," jumps up and down, runs around, and then just goes back to walking.

Un-reigned in me is like the guy screaming BLAH. I'm too loud. There's no connection between my brain and my mouth. All social graces go out the window.

And I'm funny as hell.

I have no problem dropping the reigns in informal situations, where there's nothing at stake. Dropping the reins is crazy fun. But in some situations, I feel like there is something at stake, or I have a responsibility. And I want to stay in control. Who knows what might come out at the wrong time if I don't?

In Conclusion

I'm still working on it. I know I'm funny, and I want my writing (and my public speaking) to be funny as well. Why? Because I love dystopians, and work that deals with heavy topics, but I often feel drained after I read them. And I want to energise the world. What better way than to bring the funny?

Monday, February 20, 2012

It's Okay

I am awesome.

I don't mean that in a conceited way, but I have done a good set of things that make people go, "Wow!" I gave a presentation on Saturday, and some friends brought up the fact that I speak 5 languages and that my last job before teaching was as a submarine co-pilot. I've seen 6 continents, and 12 US states -- probably more than the average American. And, of course, most Westerners think it's super-cool that I currently live in Japan.

But sometimes, more often than you'd think, I wish I had the picket fence life. The husband.The house. The 2.5 kids. (I do have a son. He's awesome and brilliant.) The summer vacations. The 2-car garage.

Sometimes it's hard to deal with the fact that I'm not committed enough to have any of those things. I will probably never own a house, because what would I do with it, when I traipse off to another country for 6 months of the year? Ditto the car, and the husband.

Sometimes I get angry with myself for knowing I am not that person and still wanting those things. It's a waste of energy, daydreaming about these things I can't possibly have, these things that would make me miserable in under a year. Unfortunately, knowing doesn't stop me from wanting.

But then there are rare occasions when I accept it. I accept that I will never be that person. I accept that I want things I can't maintain. I accept that I am who I am.

On those days, it's okay.

It's Monday, that's what's on my mind.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Priority: Writing - Loved Ones

I started a blog mini-series last week on how I prioritise writing. This Wednesday, I'm talking about writing taking priority over loved ones.


I sometimes come off as arrogant. I'm actually down-to-earth as heck, so it amuses me. It's just that my natural, 'I know my faults, screw the world, I rock!' spirit is often misinterpreted. Even in the face of that spirit, I get a good case of the Am I Crazies every once in a while.

For technical stuff - critiques, betas, advice - there's none better than another writer. But for unequivocal love and support, you need your friends and family.

The first step is to tell them. This is hard. Seriously, I feel like I understand what gay people go through the first time they tell everybody. I talk on this blog, but it took years for me to tell my friends I was a writer. (It took a decade to talk about bipolar, so I guess that's not so bad.)

It's like they say, "Those who mind, don't matter, and those who matter, don't mind."

What does this have to do with priorities? If you're going to be a novelist. In fact, if you're going to write long work of any type, then there will come times when everything else gets thrown under the bus. There will be days when you have to sacrifice being parent, spouse, sibling, friend for the sake of the writing. You need to make sure the people in your life understand. It's not that they're less important. It's just that writing is a demanding master.

Back to "those who mind."

There may be people in your life that are less than understanding. Priorities come into play here too. What is writing worth to you? Is it worth trying to help that person understand? And if they don't understand and keep being unsupportive or, worse, actively pushing against your writing, what then? Keep the writing and the writing and the relationship seperate? Give up the writing?  Give up the relationship?

I hope you never have to make these difficult decisions and that your loved ones are accepting that, sometimes, writing takes priority.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day Around the World

Yay, it's the day we celebrate that greatest of all emotions (in my books anyway). In honour of St. Valentine's Day, I made an English newsletter with little snippets of celebrations around the world for the kiddles (the older ones, 13-15). Today, I'd like to share some of those facts with you.

Roman Empire
There are many stories about St. Valentine, but the 3 most famous agree that he lived under Emperor Claudius and that he died on February 14.

Many years ago, Brits believed that the first man a young lady saw on Valentine's Day would be her husband.

Men and women would go to a party. All the men would put their names in a hat, and the women would pull a name. The couples had to stay together for the duration of the party.

People follow the tradition of "White Flowers." They send flowers called snowdrops to friends and loved ones.

During the Australian Gold Rush (circa 1851) people imported expensive perfumed satin cushions as Valentine's Day presents.

Charles, Duke of Orléans, wrote the first Vaelentine's card.

China celebrates their love festival, Qi Xi, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. (In Japan, this festival is called Tanabata and seems to be more about wishes than love.)

Girls give presents (usually chocolate) on Valentine's Day. On White Day (March 14), men return the favour.

People give Baci Perugina (Perugina Kisses). They are small chocolates with hazelnuts. They also include a special love message printed in multiple languages. (When I discovered this, I found them on Amazon Japan. My love message today came from reporter F.P. Jones. "Love doesn't make the world go round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile.)

And if, like me, you'd like to try your hand at saying I love you in a foreign language, here are a few.

English                       I love you
Japanese                   愛してる (ai shiteru)
Afrikaans                   Ek is lief vir jou
Farsi                          Dooset Daram
French                       Je t'aime
Italian                         Ti amo
Shona (Zimbabwe)     Ndinokuda (good luck pronouncing that first syllable!)
Sioux                          Techihhila
Spanish                      Te amo
Tagalog (Phillipines)    Mahal kita
Telugu(Chennai, India) Ninnu premistunnanu

Friday, February 10, 2012

Embrace the Fall

I'm in Sapporo, my favourite city in Japan, and possibly the world for the next few days. Happy!


In my first Japanese winter, I discovered that they don't do much with the snow here. Sure, they shovel it, but they don't do that whole salting thing like in the US. And I think they only snowplough when the snow gets too tall  for people to be able to go to work. Japan would collapse if people couldn't get to work. In this country, typhoons aren't cause for days off. Heck, after last year's earthquake, people tried to continue working, but the whole 20-shakers-in-an-hour made it so they gave up.

Anyhow, I walk everywhere here. The Thursday school I take a bus to, but it's still an 8 minute walk to the bus stop, and then and 8 minute walk to the school. My first year, the snow started in November and the last snow was in May. Seven months of snow/ice. Slip, slip, slide. I spent that first year being really tense, always convinced that I was seconds away from falling.

Then, one day on Death Trap Road (story for another day), I did fall. One of those slowed-down affairs where you know from the start what's happening and it takes forever to happen. Of course, Murphy's Law was in fine form that day. Noone was around when I started falling, but the second before I hit the ground, someone appeared. A kid. One of my students. The only student of 400 who laughed every single time he saw me. Yup, that kid would have to be the one to see my fall.

For the rest of the winter, I was even more afraid of falling. I got to the point where I wouldn't go anywhere that didn't require going. I would never go to the library or the supermarket unless I was at my main elementary across the road from them. When I got home, I wouldn't set a toe outside until work the following morning. If I discovered, on a weekend, that all I had in the house was eggs, then I would have an omelette-filled weekend.

I didn't fall again until the next winter. We live on an evil brute of a hill. I can avoid using it when I go to the office, to my junior high or to the tiny elementary, but it's a straight shot for my main elementary. Any other road would add 15 to 20 minutes to my route. After this second fall, a thought occurred to me.

I'd been as careful as I could be, and I'd still fallen.

From that day, I threw away the concept of not falling. It's not that I'm convinced I'll never fall again. This year's cartoonish, run-on-the-spot-then-fall fall proved that it still happens. It's not that I don't worry about falling. It's not that I don't care that I might. And I no longer worry that falling makes me look like an amateur snow-walker. Yesterday morning on my way to work, I saw one of my 7-year-old students leave his house. He took two steps and fell flat on his face.(He was fine. Got back up, and kept walking.)

Every winter, there exists a possibility that I might fall. Whatever I do, no matter how hard I try, I may fall. It's not in the realm of things I can control.

I've got two options.

I can lock my knees off, worrying at every slip. I can sequester myself in my house. I can take little Mini Me steps and spend twice as long tip-toeing around.

Or I can risk falling every now and then.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Priority: Writing - Work

In my current position, as a government employee in Japan, I'm not allowed to receive remuneration for anything that doesn't count as part of my job. Sadly, that means writing. It got me to thinking about how I prioritise writing. So over the next couple/few/several weeks, I'll be posting on how, when and what writin takes priority over.


My job has a time limit. I have a maximum of 5 years. That leaves me less than a year and a half. I know how publishing works. Even if I got an agent tomorrow, I would probably not being seeing money in hand for a novel within that time span. So right now, this remuneration issue would only arise with short work. (I've already devised a solution. Charity. I mean re they really going to stop me from earning money for a needy cause?)

So, it's not much of an issue for now, but it got me thinking about the future.

When I took this job, I had no intention of receiving remuneration elsewhere. I decided to 'go pro' in 2008, after my first Nano, and after having lived in Japan for a few months. Now, I know I want to write (and sell) novels, I can't see the point in taking a job that won't allow me to do that.

Some people will make the bird in hand argument. How can I sacrifice the job I know I could have for the possibility of one that might never come? It's true, that is a sacrifice. On the other hand, let's say I take that job and then I get a book deal with a small advance. What do I do? Quit my job when the publishing company sends me a thousand-dollar check? Risk my job on the hope that no one in my HR department reads YA? Refuse the book deal? (*laughs a little* *cries more*)

I just don't see the point of putting myself through that stress. So, I've decided that unless it's absolutely unavoidable - I'm living Garbage Pail Kids' style - then I'm taking a job that will let me have other work.

Job type
Seeing writing as a priority, type of job is also important. I've been spoiled be starting out on my writing career as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) programme. There are days when all I have to do is sit there. I use zero brain power many days, so my brain is only to happy to perform when I need it. I only work 7 hours a day. I live less than an hour's walk from all my schools. I have oodles of free time.All of these combine to say this: there has never been a better time for me to be a writer. There probably will never be another time this perfect. (Until I can support myself on my writing alone.)

It would be considerably more difficult for me to writeif I held a job which didn't allow me a lot of free time and/or ate up all my brain power. I don't know how easy it will be to swing these requirements, but you can bet I will try.

That's how and when I'm prioritising writing over the day job. How about you?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Wow, in the saddest way

Recently, I called a friend to tell him happy birthday. He wasn't home. I made small talk with his mother for a while, because she loves me to pieces. (I seem to have that effect on other people's mothers.) She asked if I was home. Then she asked about my marriage (SNARF) and I asked her where she'd invented this husband, and if he was cute!

Just before she hung up, I told her to wish her son happy birthday on my behalf. And she said, "Oh, yeah!"

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, and that it shocked me. But I can't, it wasn't and it didn't. I have only known this guy for a decade, give or take a couple months, and he doesn't talk much about his childhood, but it's pretty clear he's never had anyone.

He's the kind of kid who never did well in school, because noone cared if he did homework. He was always on the street, because noone cared if he came home. To this day, he still lives a life of just crashing whereever, because his parents don't bother to make any room for him (although they do for their other kids), and he'll never be in a position to own his own anything.

And he's always in some kind of trouble. Especially when I - as one of the few people who gives a chinese noodle - am overseas. Now, I'm not saying that a family that forgets (to the point that you wonder if they actively try) a person's existence gives them the right to be and do whatever they feel like. But it just got me to thinking.

What must it be like? To have noone on your side? To know that people care about everybody but you? To be the one who never has a present under the Christmas tree? To be the one crashing on a floor, while everyone else gets a room and a bed?

It has got to hurt. Like no other hurt I can think of.

My mother and I (like maybe half the women in the Western world) have a supremely complex relationship. Yet, my mother has never once forgotten my birthday. She's always checked on homework. She micro-manages my life despite my best efforts. (Seriously, she still manages to get in some poking about from the other side of the world!)

As a mother myself, I am made entirely of SUCK. And even I remember my son's birthday.(Helps that it's on a holiday. lol)

And, it's not just his mother. It's everyone.

So today, I'm praying for all the people who have noone. I'm praying for all the people that suffer from someone else's cruelty, intentional or not. I'm praying for their strength, and that they find love and understanding. I'm praying that someone reaches out just when they need it.

I'm praying that someone somewhere remembers their birthday.

Friday, February 3, 2012

School is now in session

Every now and again, I notice the differences in Japanese schools and the schools in Barbados. Quite a few of these differences probably carry over to your education system as well, so I thought I'd share a few of them.

The System

Japan- kids mandatorily start school at 6. Elementary school runs until 12 (6 years). Middle school goes until 15(3 years). High school goes until 18 (3 years).

Barbados- we start school at 5. Primary school runs until 11(6 years), but can be shorter if you're smart. Secondary school runs until 16 or 18, depending on which school you go to.

The student's roles

Japan- Having been here for 3 1/2 years, I realise that we treat our kids like babies in the West. In Japan, the 6th years at elementary school are responsible for lots of things. The kids walk to school in little groups, led by 6th years. And the 6th years lead "souji" teams, as well. (More on souji in a moment.)

At middle school, the kids have even more responsibility. Like when we went on the school trip, each group of students called up the people at the place they were going to on their "free research day", something I feel the teachers would have done back home. Students take the attendance and come write it on the staff room board. (They do this in elementary school, as well.) Sports teams practise on their own, with the coach/teacher in charge passing through sometimes.

I wonder if I'll ever get used to students just walking into the staff room. The procedure is this: knock on the door, say who you're going to, and go. The students can also take keys for the locked rooms from the staff room. If you allowed Western teens access to locked rooms en masse, you'd probably elevate the teen pregnancy rate.

Barbados- The student body is less communal. Because our island is so centralised, we all get to school however we can. Some of us take the bus, some are driven. Very few live within walking distance of their secondary school.

Teens can not just walk into the staff room. I can count the times I went into the staff room at my secondary school. If you need something from a teacher, you go to the door, and someone will ask you who you're waiting for. If there were any sorts of trips, or anything involving the business community, that was organised by the teachers, with the exception of some older students. If anyone ever had any keys to anything, even for a minute, they were one of the "trusted few."


Japan- One thing I don't think I'll ever get used to is the changing timetable. In middle school the timetable is different every day, every week. Some days are 5 period days, some days are 6. And there's a 10 minute break between classes.

Also, Japanese students (in my town/prefecture) do fewer subjects. Nine, by my count. The same nine are studied from beginning to end of middle school. And, it seems impossible to be kept back a year until at least high school level.

Barbados- We have a weekly timetable that only changes in special circumstances. When one period ends the other begins. The luxury of breaks between classes is a university thing. Depending on the school, there are 7 or 8 periods per day. And students can study as many as 13 subjects. Also subjects change as you advance. Like you might have a class like "Guidance" in your first year. And Technical Drawing will appear as an option around the 3rd year.


Japan- Even though the students have greater roles, the teachers also have more responsibility. Like if a student shoplifts, even when not wearing uniform, the store will often call the school. Teachers are not purely academic leaders. At middle school, every teacher is responsible for a club activity or sport. They are also each members of different groups, like the social group that organises the staff outings.

A major difference from the West is that the fact that academics is out of session does not mean that school is out, and therefore teachers are NOT ON VACATION. Club activities run pretty much every day of the year, including Sundays for some clubs.

Teachers are kind of like a 3rd parent. Unlike the West, where a teacher may meet a student's parents at an academic parent-teacher consulation day, the teachers in Japan, especially in the countryside, know the parents by name. At my middle school, they know the parent's jobs, the home situation, other brothers and sisters, even if they're at other schools. At my tiny elementary school, the teachers know all the kids grandparents! Weirdly, I know most of them now, too.

One final element of teaching life is transfers. The Japanese system has this weird way of randomly transferring people. In the teaching system, you can expect to be transferred every 3 to 10 years. You'll be transferred within your prefecture. In my prefecture, that means it's possible to end up working 4 hours away from where you live. This means lots of uprooting or living away from family. Like I said, this one isn't limited to teachers only.


Wa is the Japanese concept of harmony. There are two things within the school system which, I think, exemplify this concept. Firstly, there's club. In middle school, every student is required to join a club. Clubs can be sports, or things like band. You can only really be a member of one club. They all meet at the same time, an hour or two (or 4) after school. In the West, you can be a Girl Guide (Scout), on the school paper, on the soccer team, etc. In fact, big name colleges look for it.

Then there's souji. Souji means cleaning. In Japan, the students are responsible for cleaning the school. I could see a collective law suit if we tried this at home.


This one last category is one that Barbados has in common with Japan, but I've included it because in most countries, uniforms are reserved private institutions.

So there you have it, some of the bigger differences between school here and school in the West. How did your school life differ from these?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Being thankful

You've heard me complain recently about the cold. Every year, we drop below -10 C and stuff that was never meant to freeze, freezes. What gets me through the winter? The knowledge that no matter where you are in Japan, the weather sucks at some point in time. So when the "Southerners" are dealing with 40 degrees C (100s F) and 80 % humidity, the weather is less miserable up here in the frozen North. There's usually only 1 unbearable week for me. Whereas my friends who aren't suffering so badly right now, have months of "I showered 47 seconds ago, why am I covered in sweat?"

I've also taken to being generally amused by winter. Apart from the washing machine/ frozen kitchen lake incident, I laugh off whatever winter throws my way. So this morning when I found snow on the INSIDE of my front door, and one of my teachers said "Oh, yeah it was really windy," I laughed that off. (There are so many things in Japan, that could only exist in Japan. If everybody had doors like this in most other countries, thieves would make a killing!)

When I was leaving home, I struggled to open my door, because two feet of snow had fallen overnight. I laughed that off, too. Normally, I shovel any snow I see right away. If I don't, then the old man opposite my neighbour will shovel it. And then the old lady opposite me, will lay a guilt trip on me for "making" an old man shovel my walkway. But today, I had to hurry since Thursday is the mountain school, the only school that requires me to take a bus, and therefore be at a bus stop at a particular time. (Of course, when I got home, my walkway had been shovelled- presumably by the old man.)

In the country, Japanese roads don't have sidewalks. There's a painted white line that says, this is the edge of the road, and people are meant to walk inside that line. Needless to say, there was no white line today. Even though the entire neighbourhood (minus me) was outside shovelling the road, there was nowhere for me to walk but in the middle of it. When I got to the traffic light, I stood behind a car. I couldn't walk on the inside of it, because of snow, and I couldn't walk around it, because of oncoming cars. I laughed that off too.

The bus was late. You probably don't understand what that means, but you could set your watch by Japan's transportation system. Every bus stop has a time listed on it, and the bus will get there at that time. Not before. Not after. If the bus is early, they drive slower, to lose the time, before they reach the bus stop. And today, the bus was 15 minutes late. I laughed that off.

As, I boarded the bus, I thought, today is crazy. Iwate prefecture's side of the mountains (The Pacific Ocean side) is colder, but less snowy. The Akita prefecture (Japan Sea) side is snowier, but usually not as cold. In fact, the coldest place on Honshu (main island of the Japanese archipelago) is in Iwate. Weird, because we are not the northernmost prefecture. Anyhow, I jokingly made a mental memo to the snow.

Dear Snow,

You're on the wrong side of the mountains. I mean what were you thinking, 2 feet in Iwate?

Wading through it,

And then I saw the news tonight. In Akita, on the other side of my mountains, there was 5 FEET OF SNOW overnight, AND AN AVALANCHE which killed 3 people.

How's that for perspective? Tonight, I'm sending condolences to those families. And I being thankful for the crazy ice palace that I live in. The snow is always whiter on the other side of the mountains, but you can never truly know the disadvantages of all the bad things that didn't come your way.