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 daily life

ju-ni gatsu 12 (dec)
Compared to most commutes in the Tokyo area, my under-an-hour trek, although on three different trains, is not bad at all. Some of my students travel for two hours each way every day. Those fortunate enough to secure a seat snooze, read or fiddle with their cell phones: emailing, playing games or watching tv or movies, sound politely muted, but never talking on them while on the train. I usually tote a novel, compliments of my local public library which has a great English language section, and have gotten pretty good at reading standing up with one hand in a strap, legs slightly bent to absorb the sporadic movement.

Unfortunately the Japanese sun, so bold on the flag, is often obscured by clouds. But on those days when it's clear and you can find a spot without tall buildings or with a little height, Fuji-san floats like a dreamy apparition above the horizon to the west. Wispy clouds circle the broad snow covered peak. I look for it in certain places I know it might appear, on the train, over the river, out a window. The trees on campus have lost their leaves and reach gracefully across the tiled walks, except for one tree, still green and, I am told, will remain green throughout the year. It fills the window of my classroom, a comforting reminder of warmer days.

My workdays have been spent encouraging students to converse in English, coaching them to use grammar and phrases in a natural exchange. The school year coincides with the calendar year, and the graduating seniors, already committed to jobs, are apprehensive about jumping off into their new work lives - a seemingly endless expanse of decades stretch ahead of them until they can retire at age 60, which social mores dictate should be worked at the same job, in the same company. Although chances are that some of these customs will loosen in coming years with the arrival of more international businesses and more mobile jobs, my students don't feel their options include any flexibility. Women can leave to have children, but if their company is not willing to take them back, they will have difficulty finding another position - no one wants to hire someone who has quit their job. Many women in today's urban Japan opt for career instead of family, and the government is concerned about a shrinking pool of young people needed to support an aging population.

Some nights, arriving home around 6:45pm, I stop at the sushi train or a little tempura place near the train station for a cheap, delicious seafood dinner - fast food Japanese style. On Friday nights, city hall offers free Japanese lessons. A volunteer sits with our small group coaching us in unstructured instruction. After language class I often stop at Sakura, an izakaya (Japanese style bar/restaurant) on the train street, where I've usually been able to strike up an easy conversation with locals interested in trying out their English. One night as I walked home from the station someone called out "Luce!" - the Japanese pronunciation of my name. It reminds me of Luz, the lyrical Spanish name that means light, so popular in Guatemala. Su, the spiky-haired young cook at Sakura, invited me in. He and other staff stand out front of the restaurant wishing me good night when I leave. At first I thought they were checking to see if I could walk down the street in a straight line after sipping sake for a few hours, but I soon discovered it's a personal courtesy and it's done in other establishments as well.

Always in search of good live music, I've become a regular at a small jazz club that holds a weekly session night. A now familiar group of musicians come to jam and I've sung the blues with them more than once. At my last night at the jazz club this year, I was touched by gifts from new musical friends: a small white cow on a chain for good luck in the new year (2009 is the Chinese year of the cow), a cd of a Japanese singer I loved, and a sheet of printed photos from some of my evenings there.

I’ve been asked to continue teaching at the same university for the spring semester so, amid the sadness of saying my goodbyes, I am pleased to know I’ll be returning to newfound friends and a comfortable work situation. Most of the other international teachers will not be back; there'll be a new crop of recruits next time around. A group of us had a boisterous karaoke night last week - typically you rent a private room with your friends rather than doing a stand-up number in front of strangers. We danced and harmonized, surprised at the abundance of songs in English that were available.

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