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(no subject)

I swear I am more surprised every time I browse a shelf of books translated into Japanese from the English. I can't believe how many books have made it over!

All the teachers in the school have to write a 2-line blurb about one of the books in the library. This means that I needed to go and thoroughly check out their foreign section. (I've read many books in Japanese, but my all-time favorite books are still almost all English.) I'd never done that before-- I'll borrow a Japanese book, sure, but I usually prefer to read English books in the original English.

The foreign section is three 2-meter long bookshelves, front and back. If it were one set of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves it would be some nine meters long. That's huge-- way more books than I own. They have plenty of obvious classics (Harry Potter, all of the Narnia books, some Christopher Robin). Also a lot of my favorites: all of the Earthsea books, the His Dark Materials series, even about six Meg Cabot books. (The librarian said that most of the girls knew Meg Cabot.) Then there were a bunch of books that I'd sure enjoyed, but was still a bit surprised to see in translation: Hoot and Scat, Lionboy (the librarian said that that one was popular about ten years ago), Artemis Fowl. Not only Treasure Island but also The Bottle Imp.

I always feel like the trade is a bit unfair: there are plenty of Japanese authors who are at least as popular in Japan as Carl Hiassen is in America. Most people have probably read a couple of Higashino Keigo books even if they aren't big mystery readers. Every woman in the country knows Hayashi Mariko. You don't need to be big into sports books to read Asano Atsuko, either. Tsujimura Mizuki's story about a medium was made into a popular movie, as was part of one of Onda Riku's supernatural mystery series. A bunch of my kids like Yamada Yusuke, though I don't much like his brand of gross-out humor. But hands up anyone who doesn't know Japanese who knows any of these authors. Granted, the only author in this list who tends to write books classified as middle-grade here is Asano Atsuko, as opposed to, debatably, every English book listed above. But I'd be surprised to see translations of any of them in a library in America, and certainly not in a one-room school library.

When I found the collection of Diana Wyne Jones translations, I just stopped looking. They have all three Howl books, all six Chrestomancis, and even Hexwood and A Tale of Time City. My middle school library in America didn't even have all of those! (Please ignore that when I was in middle school there were only two Howl books and four Chrestomanci ones.) The only question is which: most of them know the Miyazaki film that shares a title with Howl's Moving Castle but not the actual book; and as an introduction to the Chrestomanci books, I can't decide whether I prefer the one written earlier (Charmed Life) or the one set earlier (The Lives of Christopher Chant). I am currently rereading those three in an attempt to decide.
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Graduation etc

A lot of the things here that seem weird to me are weird to me not because I'm in Japan, but because I'm in a school. I suspect that graduations are one of those things; I've never been to an American graduation, so I wouldn't know.

Anyway, a Japanese middle school graduation is like an American high school graduation in that it marks the end of mandatory education, and high school, for those who choose to apply, is the first place you have to fight to get into. (Entrance exams are pretty brutal.) And a graduation here requires about two weeks of practices and preparations.

There was such a practice today. The assistant vice principal explained to everyone how to stand up, how to bow (at the moment that he says"bow" or else when someone on the stage bows to them, held to a count of two), and where to look. Then there was song practice, because they have to sing the school song and the graduation song.

It's hard to explain the atmosphere even at the practice-- super strict, super formal, happy and sad as graduations are, but with an undercurrent of highly repressed hilarity. It's just do formal that some people just end up laughing. Imagine a workshop where the instructor tells everyone to make their bodies into a square. Then imagine he tries to make everyone more square: "You, tuck your head in more! You, make your torso wider! You, make your butt more cornery!". Of course people would end up laughing.

Naturally, laughing is strictly prohibited at the graduation itself.
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(no subject)

It's super embarrassing that I should mess up on chocolate chip cookies with such a simple mistake, but I think I figured it out. I reread the recipe (the Martha Stewart version of Toll House cookies), and converted everything into metric and weights. (I could've saved a lot of time if I'd just googled "metric chocolate chip cookies" instead! But FYI, the amount is 115 g unsalted butter, 150 g light brown sugar, 1 egg, 5 ml vanilla, 2.5 ml salt, 1.25 ml baking soda, 140 g flour, and 150-170 g chocolate, and if you make it into 30 cookies you will bake them at 170 for a scant 10 minutes. But I know you all knew that.)

Anyway, I was rereading the Martha recipe, and saw she called for all-purpose flour. Now, on Monday, I used cake flour, because that was what my friend had, and I wanted to try it. But of course a recipe that needs the chew and density from gluten won't work with cake flour! Alton Brown even goes farther, and says you should just use bread flour, though I didn't know that then.

So I went to the supermarket, intent on buying AP flour. It was really hard! Most of the flour was cake flour. There were probably some 15 types of flour, and I swear, I thought I looked at all of them (yielding 14 thin-strength flours, eg cake flour, and 1 strong-strength, eg bread flour) before I gave up and asked an attendant.

"All-purpose flour? What's that?" she said.

"It's stronger than cake flour but not as strong as bread flour," I said. (In fact I'd only learned the word myself, literally "middle strength flour" from a friend the previous day; I hadn't known that Japan even had it.)

"Let's see," she said, and started going through the same shelves I'd just examined. About 5 minutes later, after asking me if 2 different brands of cake flour were OK, she unearths 1 small bag, which had "middle strength flour" clearly written on it in small letters.

I bought the flour, and using my landlady's assistance (and kitchen scale), I made chocolate chip cookies. Her oven is very small, so I baked them 4 at a time, but they came out absolutely perfect: golden outside, chewy inside, you can taste the vanilla and brown sugar and salt.

I think I shouldn't be surprised at the proportion of soft flours to hard flours in the supermarket. The traditional Japanese food that everyone makes using flour is tempura, and for that you not only want a very soft flour, you might even add some rice flour to increase the starch content even more and make the perfect crispy crunch. And tempura is definitely an everyday thing. They also might use flour for croquettes, for breading meat, and of course for cakes. But that's it. Pretty much no one makes bread. And even I can't think of much of anything other than this that really requires AP flour. Maybe I should've just got bread flour.


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(no subject)

Today was the last day I visit the 6th graders at the local elementary school before they come up to my middle school, so I was asked to explain a little bit about middle school English for them. The sentence I'd been asked to practice with them in the lesson part of the class was "What do you want to be?" and its answer, "I want to be a _____." (FYI, _____ is usually spelled ~ in Japanese. It has many pronunciations in Japanese, but if I'm speaking English, I pronounce it "blah blah blah". Also FYI, Japanese elementary school students and middle school students think the word "blah blah blah" is hilarious.)

Anyway, I started by asking them, "OK, how many of you thought that this was super-easy? How about how many of you thought it was kind of hard? It's OK if you did. Here's another question. You will study this sentence in middle school, but what year? Do you think you'll study it when you're a 7th grader? When you're an 8th grader? A 9th grader?"

The answer is they don't do it again until fairly late in 8th grade, because in middle school, the hope is there's less plain memorizing of target sentences and more actually understanding the grammar that goes on in them. The sentence "What do you want to be?" is a bit complicated if you break it down, and they don't cover the parts until well into their second year. Most of the students could read the first two sentences of the middle school textbook when I wrote them on the board. ("I am Sakura. You are Becky.")

Anyway, my schpiel was about 10 minutes long, and I swear I could see eyes glazing over from the very beginning. In the end, there were only 2 questions: "Is there English homework?" (To my "Yes, you have to write one page a day in English, and you can just copy the textbook if you want, but I promise you it's also really good practice to make up your own sentences!" I saw a number of horrified looks.) And, "How many hours a week do we have English class?" I saw more horrified looks when I said, "4 hours." I do hope that my effort to make middle school English less scary was not counterproductive!


Also. I am feeling like a cookie failure now. I promised all the students on my first day here that I would make them chocolate chip cookies someday, and as a representative of America in a country where good chocolate chip cookies are a rarity, I feel like this is a good idea at least as much now. The vice principal said that I could not make them for the students, because of liability issues, but he had no problems with a local baker making them. The local baker was fine with making them, but given that most Japanese people have no idea what properly gooey-in-the-middle American chocolate chip cookies are like, he asked me to make him an example first and bring it to him along with the recipe. So I made chocolate chip cookies at a friend's house today, and I swear I followed the right recipe, the one that's on the back of every bag of chocolate chips in America (only I chopped up some nice 48% French chocolate myself here), and they just didn't come out right. They were fine, they both said they were delicious, but they just didn't have that proper chew to them. They came out fluffy/bready instead of having that almost candylike quality they should. I can't imagine what went wrong-- too much baking soda? Wrong kind of brown sugar? Not enough butter? (4 ounces is 112 grams, right?) I don't think I can bring these to him, because tasting these, you probably wouldn't understand what the fuss is about.
was sleeping

(no subject)

Do not ask me why on Earth I thought today would be a good day to go to the gym.

My city has a few gyms, and the closest one is a place about an hour and a quarter's walk away if you walk very fast. (Google says it's about 7.5 km.) I see it from the bus every time I go downtown. The buses aren't running regularly yet because of the blizzard last week, and I think it's silly to take a bus to save an hour's walk if your goal is to work out anyway. And the sidewalks where I live are all traversible if not clear. Plus it's been a long time since I've taken a yoga class.

I called them up this afternoon to ask them about rates and hours, and they said that they were open until 10:30. So I put on my walking shoes and headed out. The sidewalks were all not too bad in my part of town-- sometimes they were deep valleys cut into mountains of snow taller than me, sometimes they were that funny lumpy icy-snowy mix that you get when there was a couple of inches of snow left before it got trodden on and refrozen, often there was a completely clear path about a foot wide. I can't walk at my usual pace there, but I can walk.

About half an hour in, I hit a couple of patches of black ice, but again, a little black ice is OK if you walk carefully and you know to look for it. But I should have turned around as soon as I hit it, because from there on, the sidewalks got steadily worse and worse. There were still patches of clear, but there were also places where you had to either trudge through a foot of snow or walk in the street. There were a number of places where you had to walk in the street, because not only were the sidewalks completely unshovelled, they were blocked by five-foot-high snowbanks. There were places where it looked like the sidewalk was clear, but then the path disappeared after 60 feet or so, so you had to backtrack to get to the crosswalk to walk on the other side of the street. (This was a busy road; crossing it at dusk while wearing black was not an option.) By that point I kept up, because I knew I was so close, and I thought it would be so silly to get so close and then turn around. And if nothing else, the gym should have a place where I could wait for a taxi.

Finally, about two hours after setting off on what should've been a 1-hour walk, I arrived-- at an empty parking lot. The gym was closed. Nothing was lit up either. I called them again, but of course there was no answer. I could've sworn that the guy on the phone said that they were open until 10:30, and that weekdays they were upen until 12:30, and their day off was Thursday. I was absolutely positive of this. But it was absolutely, unquestionably closed.

I did remember, though, that there was a very good restaurant in that part of town. I went there with my coworkers a few months ago; it was the place where I had the first meat I had after quitting vegetarianism. It's just off the main street, so I would never have found it if I hadn't been there before, but I knew exactly where it was.

I was the only customer; the owner was watching a cooking show. He said that because of the snow, no one wanted to come out. He also said that at this time of year, almost none of the vegetables he normally grows are in season-- only bok choy from his fields and carrots from his friend's field. He said he had to buy the rest of the vegetables. Now, like any self-respecting white person, I go a little gooey when I hear that the farm where the vegetables come from is connected to the restaurant. I asked him how he cooks bok choy, and he mentioned boiled tofu. The dish is simply vegetables and tofu boiled in water until the vegetables are tender. Then you dip them in citron vinegar flavored with soy sauce, scallions, and grated daikon. So I just ordered that.

It was very good.

Then I took a cab back and swore I'd confirm the hours at least three times before trying for that gym again.
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Really, Nagano?

We just had a staff meeting. The verdict? The buses still can't handle the streets, but it's not ok to have 3 snow days. (Snow days here are just school csncellation; graduation will still be march 17th no matter what. Spring break is only 1 week anyway, and the teachers are all busy then.) So they're having school as normal. The kids who normally come by bus will be driven by their parents. Teachers are on the phones calling up the parents to explsin that as I type this. The students will not be penalized if they are late or absent. Also, this wasn't decided early enough to tell the place that makes school lunch, so lunch tomorrow will be just rice. The strangest part? The buses may not run for the rest of the week, because this part of Nagano really doesn't get much snow. They'll just do the same thing.

In Boston, buses probably could run a couple days after a big storm like this. But if they couldn't, schools would just be shut down for as long as it takes. I really don't get this.


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snow

It is now Nagano's turn to get a lot of snow. Nagano is indeed famous for mountains and snow, but I live in a valley in between mountains. The mountains usually catch all the snow before it can get here, so even though it gets cold, we don't usually get much snow.

Until Saturday, that is. This Saturday, the skies opened up, and 70 cm came down. That's about two feet. It's tall enough so that people had to carve little paths through it. The snowdrifts are taller than I am.

Naturally, the whole city shut down. I was scheduled to give a speech, but it was cancelled, because no one could get to the venue. I went to the supermarket, being incredibly grateful that there was one within a few hundred meters of me (it only took me two or three times longer than normal to get there) and it was a total warzone inside-- absolutely nothing left. No fresh vegetables, not even cabbage, only a few packs of strawberries left, almost no natto, no tofu, no onigiri, no baked goods-- massive bare shelves, since everyone had got terrified and bought everything, and the trucks couldn't get there to restock.

I was fairly sure when I went to bed yesterday that in the morning, I'd get a call saying that it was a snow day, but no such call came, so I went to school at the normal time. Thankfully, most of the sidewalks already had paths carved out, so I was able to get to school. When I got there, all of the teachers were outside, with shovels.

It turned out that today was a snow day for the students. My city never gets this much snow, so the roads were pretty much undriveable, and the buses were deemed unsafe. This doesn't matter for the teachers, though; we are contractually obligated to either come to school or use vacation days. Road conditions were so bad that some teachers ddin't get to school until 9:30 (their contracts say 8:00). When they did, I clapped and cheered for them with the rest of the teachers by the gate. The work that needed to be done was clearing the snow so that the students would be able to come tomorrow. Hence everyone out there with shovels.

As is, tomorrow is the same: they decided at about noon that the buses still wouldn't be safe tomorrow, so it's another snow day for the students, and teachers are welcome to take one of their vacation days. I can't very well take a vacation day, because I've already taken a lot, and I'll take more when I travel during the spring break (that's a week between the semesters when the students do not come to school but the teachers must take vacation days if they want the time off).

I am somewhat grateful for the snow day. I have 4 elementary school visits next week that I'm barely prepared for at all, and this does give me more time to get ready for them. But I do wish that after I finish the work, I'd be allowed to come home!
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(no subject)

So working as an assistant English teacher means a lot of things, but you know what the biggest part of my job is? Making trivia quizzes. Now, I can tell you the fastest bird, the biggest animals, the distance to outer space, and the length a chromosome would be if you unwound it. I know what animal is as long as your intestines are (killer whales, at about 6-10 meters), and whether paper clips or locomotives were invented first. (Locomotives by a good 50 years. Crazy, right?)

My first-year students are doing "When can we...?" and "Where can we...?", so I made a trivia quiz for them. E.g: "Where can we see the Colosseum? A: In France; B: In Italy; C: In America." The Social Studies teacher assured me that they didn't know, so I went with that question, but it was way too easy; everyone knew. So right now I'm revising it to make it harder. E.g: "Where can we see the Colosseum? A: In Liguria; B: In Lazio; C: In Sicily."

Btw, I was a bit surprised that everyone in that first class knew exactly when Frozen opens in this country (March 14th--Japan, why do you make me wait so long??) but that no one knew when the new live-action version of Kiki's Delivery Service opens.

It's really hard to do things like this, because nothing is ever singular enough, and everyone already knows all the really unique things. Everyone knows where the Easter Island heads are, for instance. I thought about "Where can we eat goat's head?" except it turns out that there are many cuisines all over the world wheere goat's head is a delicacy. Black sand beaches exist in Hawaii, California, New Zealand, and Iceland.
was sleeping

(no subject)

So the super-nasty JLPT I was whining about the other day? I got the result yesterday. I got 68.3% right. The passing score is 67%. I squeaked by.

I'm super-happy about this: JLPT1 is a really great level to be at. It means that you more or less have the Japanese skills of a Japanese high school freshman. It is a minimum requirement for many jobs.

But even though I'm relieved, and happy, I'm not as happy as I thought I would be. Yes, I now have a nice shiny certificate, but I know exactly where my Japanese ability sucks. I know I can't read faster than I speak even for easy things, and for newspapers, not even that fast. I struggle with news reports or even following a conversation if there's more than about two other people. I know lots of kanji, but there's still plenty of very common ones that I don't know. Having the certificate that says that I'm more or less at this level doesn't change those.

Since I do have the certificate, I'm not going to take the test again in the summer. I'll take it again in December, a year after I took it last. Even if I don't do much vocab drilling or practice tests, I can study by watching movies and reading books too. I expect that my score should be higher in a year.
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gratuitous random info

I'm doing comparatives with my 2nd-years, and this year I'm making a quiz so they can practice. Sample question and answer: "Which is colder, the North Pole or the South Pole?" Right answer: "The South Pole is colder than the North Pole."

For this quiz, I got a table of metal melting points, so I could make questions like this: "Which is hotter, red-hot platinum or lava?" (Btw, this sort of question requires pictures, because they don't know "lava", "platinum" [which I chose because the Japanese for it sounds alike ("platina")], or "red-hot".)

I remembered this xkcd What If, which says that liquid tungsten is so hot that if you dropped some of it into molten lava, the lava would freeze the tungsten. I thought that that was so cool! But looking at that table, I see that that is true for many much more commonplace metals. Molten lava would freeze molten iron, steel, platinum, silicon, nickel, titanium, and iridium. Depending on the type of lava, it might also freeze copper. People work with temperatures far hotter than the 700-1200 C that lava is at every day.