Madlibs Lesson

This past week, I decided to use Madlibs in class for the 1st years. I was a little nervous because in the 3 years I’ve been here, I wanted to do Madlibs, but wasn’t exactly sure how to manage the lesson so that the students could understand the humor in it. I finally just dove in and prepared the lesson to take it a step at a time.

Students should understand what sort of passage they’re modifying first. So I made an example of what the passage should sound like ideally.

My “Dream Person” should be very adventurous and friendly. They should have a physique like David Bowie, a profile like Ayase Haruka, and the personality of a cat. They must be polite and must always remember to wash my dishes, to put away their clothes, and to take my hand when crossing the street. They should move gracefully, have a soothing voice, and should always dress fashionably. I would also like them to be a great dancer, and when we are alone they should whisper sweet nothings into my ear and massage my tired shoulders. I know such a person is hard to find. In fact, the only person I can think of is____!

I needed the JTE to help the students understand the passage to speed up the instructions, so Japanese was used a bit to translate, in addition to using simpler English explanations, as well as my WTF gesticulations.

For the lower-level classes, we split the students into 2 or 4 groups, whereas the higher-level students broke off into pairs. Their MadLib had 21 entries, so for a small group of 6 or 7, each student is responsible for at least 3 words. The JTE and I explained all the parts of speech to the students. When everyone is done, each student reports their words to the rest of the group to make the funny story.

This worked so much better than I thought. The students were focused on the task, making sure with each other their words were correct, looking for interesting words in their word banks, asking the JTE and I to confirm that their words met the requirement, asking their peers to spell, and were listening intently. When they finished, it was up to the JTE and I to help them imagine their story with a bit of translating. After that, we had half the members from each group switch out to read to each other their story, and to explain to their partner the non-sensical. The students really enjoyed how crazy everything sounded, and most of the sentences were simple enough to sustain some disbelief. Some commented how awesome (or possibly inappropriate…やばい!) the activity was.

Definitely one of my more fun classes. I collected their stories to have them appear randomly on page load here to enjoy.

Getting into the top public universityin Japan

Translation from the May school bulletin advising and informing students of the amount of study necessary in their 3 years of high school so that students can plan accordingly.

This year, Todai has released the recommendations application process that replaces the current system of screening final semester examination results.

  • A total of 100 applicants will be accepted
  • Each school’s principal recommends one male and one female
  • The examination will screen applicants’ documents, in addition to an interview. They will also take into account high scores on the National exam.
    The document screening  includes:

    • Written essays in school, or other accomplishments during general study hours.
    • Various science fair (Olympic) awards, and the like.
    • Foreign language certifications (such as TOEFL, Eiken, IELTS, etc)
    • International study abroad experience, or scores on certified exams that could be used to enter international institutions (such as the International Baccalaureate, or SAT)
    • Other considerations may include activities that demonstrate motivation for civic contributions, art, writing, sports.

The National Exam scores will be used to judge the applicant’s academic habits that ensure the effectiveness of their academic foundation after entering university, so one should aim for scores around 80% in general.

Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Checklist


Ignoring someone at work because they didn’t respond to your invite to associate
Pressing a junior to have sexual relations
Holding a coworker’s hand in a car during work hours
Asking someone about their sexual experiences
Unnecessary direct touch of one’s body
Touching a coworker of the opposite sex
Posting a nude poster in the office
Showing nude photos of a coworker of the opposite sex
Flippantly showing or reading indecent photos or articles in reading materials.
Asking or saying things about one’s clothes, hair, or physical appearance
Staring or gazing at another’s body.
Having a sexual conversation in front of a coworker of the opposite sex
Asking what color the undergarments of a coworker of the opposite sex is.
Intentionally spreading a sexual rumor about a coworker
Persistent invites for drinks or a date
Forcing a female coworker to sit next to a male boss at drinking parties
Forcing one to do a duet, cheek dance, or pour drinks at a drinking party
Touching a coworker of the opposite sex’s body during a drinking party
Having a sexual conversation on the phone, or sending letters or emails of similar content
Saying things like, “Why aren’t you married yet,” or “That’s why you can’t get married.”
Asking, “You still don’t have kids?”

Saying to female coworkers, “You should have kids.”
Saying to female coworkers, “Be more womanly,” or “But you’re a woman, so…”
Saying to male coworkers, “Be a man!” or “But you’re a man, so…”
Calling female coworkers things like, “Little girl,” “Old lady,” “My wife.”
Calling male coworkers things like, “Little Boy,” “Old man,” “Boy,” “Kid.”
If there are women in the room, forcing them to make tea, clean, or other personal tasks.

– Supplement document to educator disciplinary measures, addressed to all prefectureal school principals and public servants in ethics guidance

A Vietamese… American

The Vietnam of my parents is gone. It lives on in the Vietnamese diaspora. I know a lot of people go back to Vietnam to make their fortune and whatnot. But my parents (my father anyway) who, in his youth, fought on the Nationalist side, rather than the Communist, is too fearful to see how his beloved country has changed.

I think because there was no love for the current Vietnam, I have no interest in going there, and I feel like I can’t relate to the people who live there because I don’t really know who to trust besides people who question the government.

The one time I went to attend my cousin’s wedding banquet, there were plenty of friendly faces, but the only person I felt I was able to connect with was the girl cleaning the bathroom of the club we were at when I went to wash my hands. I asked her what life was like here as a queer woman (gaydar works in Vietnam!), whether she had a girlfriend, and she said that life is hard, but enjoyable. There are events where like-minded people get together and hang out. And she has a lover.

This to me is reassuring. Another reason for my disconnect with Vietnam was how a girl is supposed to look and act. Skinny, long hair, long legs, sweet and nice. This isn’t restricted to just Vietnamese girls, but when you hear it regurgitated in Vietnamese and you see the Vietnamese magazine photos and the Vietnamese stage show videos, and you just don’t fit the mold, you cling to something that won’t judge you (for one thing, because it doesn’t include you) and tells you that you’re fine just the way you are.


At the end of the school year, I joined the senior class teachers on a trip to Taiwan. I’ve been meaning to go for a while, but knowing how there was going to be tons of good food, I figure it would be better to go with others. With a small group of teachers traveling within just a couple days, it was more convenient to hire a tour company.  Normally I would plan a trip on a shoestring budget and my own schedule, but I also liked the idea of seeing how the teachers (and perhaps Japanese people, in general) travel.

For one thing, the female teachers who have kids don’t trust their partners enough to leave the kids alone for the weekend, so they opt to spend time with their kids, rather than go on the trip. So it was just me and the other single teacher. It’s noble of the mothers, really, but such a shame. Dads still need stepping up to do here.

I was really excited to get into the flavors of Taiwanese food again, and had the chance to go to Shilin Night Market, Din Tai Fung, and Jiu Feng, which inspired Spirited Away. We were able to see the National Palace Museum, the Chiang Kai Shek memorial and a couple of temples. There were also a couple stops for duty-free shopping and we even went to a fortune-telling street.

My biggest impression of Taipei was how modernity and fashion blended with the sort of old and grungy tackiness that I attribute to Chinatown. The city is dotted with modern buildings, like department stores, Taipei 101, and Taipei Arena. But in between and through the alleyways were grimy old buildings that were offices or apartments. Inside, though, were modern interiors, fit for hipsters.

We went to “the countryside” that is Jiu Feng, a sleepy mountain-side town that attracted a lot of visitors after Spirited Away became global, so its hawker streets began to populate with modern chain shops as well. A lot of the narrow alleyways were preserved, so we took a bit of an adventure and took whatever path that went up. Once we got to the top for a great view, we trekked down again through an extravagant graveyard, and many people’s homes, all shut with few windows, and closely packed together. You would think that with so many small and sharp alleyways, we’d find ourselves at a dead end at some point, but after wandering for a while, you would never expect one. It was surprisingly reassuring to know that there would always be a way out.

In Taipei, people drive cars, scooters, and they ride the train. The scooters reminded me of Vietnam, the cars reminded me of America, and the train reminded me of Japan.

Since our tour was focused towards Japanese tourists, which was evident because none of the shop attendants spoke English at all, we were taken to special tourist shops designed for tourists to pour all their money into gifts and symbols of status that included a 5% discount if you spent over 3000 Taiwan dollars.

The nice thing about going to a shop recommended by the tour is that it assures authenticity of Taiwanese-made products, but I can’t speak for the actual value and whether something is overpriced. However, I find that bargaining in this inflated economy only encourages people to cut even more corners anyway, like cheating workers of a fair wage, so I’m more conscious about what I can and can’t afford, and what I really need.

That aside, the tour also took us to duty-free brand name shops, which was a total waste of time. Our tour guide wisely cut that part of the tour short and took us to a fortune-telling alley that also catered to Japanese tourists. This was definitely a win because the one other female teacher had originally wanted to come to Taiwan to experience its fortune-tellers, but was shot down in a Japanese-esque way by the older male math teacher (who also assumes power because he’s from Aizu and she’s from the other side of the country).

In addition to our amazing tour guide’s sixth sense in knowing what we wanted to do, she explained the circumstances of Taiwanese society, how it’s got the lowest birth rate in the world, not because the people don’t want kids, but because the cost of living is incredibly expensive. Also, as our bus went toward the Japanese embassy, we saw a protest rally getting started, and she had no qualms about explaining the animosity between Taiwanese people of Chinese lineage and indigenous Taiwanese. I can’t say I understand the social situation in Taiwan, but having Taiwanese friends and family who are of Chinese and indigenous descent, as well as glossing over Taiwan’s history through Wikipedia, I realize that I’ve only hit the surface, and that there’s a lot more interesting things to discover.

I took a lot of notes in my Moleskin (whether I go back to review them is another thing…), and the shop attendants noticed that everything I wrote was in English. She assumed I was Japanese, and said, “How smart you are!” I responded by saying, “No no, I’m American (it’s expected).” I had explained I was Vietnamese-American to the tour guide beforehand, so for a minute, I had two aunties chit-chatting about me, and later was told, “You’re going to turn Japanese!”

Không không! Tôi là người góc Việt! Bố tôi lớn lên ở Đà Lạt, mẹ tôi sông ở Sài Gòn! Một trăm phần trăm người Việt!

A few food notes:

  • Fried quail eggs on a stick is AMAZING. I want more!
  • Pig’s blood encrusted with peanuts with hot sauce and cilantro was a bit boring. The hot sauce was overpowering and erased all the other flavors for me.
  • I had chrysanthemum tea and it was soooo good! Really missed that.
  • Taiwan has this “hot dog” where it’s a Chinese-style pork sausage, sweetened by marinating in rice wine that’s wrapped inside another sausage made of sticky rice. We waited in line for 30 minutes watching a middle-aged couple tag team in making them. They offer various kinds of toppings to go with your sausage.
  • Didn’t have time to eat beef noodle soup. Sad.
  • Din Tai Fung! Everyone had their fill of soup dumplings. My fave was the crab roe and pork. Really wanted to try the truffle dumplings, but I didn’t realize I could order my own basket until the social studies teacher had his own. But happiness returned when the sweet hot rice wine soup with dumplings came out. The menu didn’t say that the dumplings contained black sesame, so you can’t imagine how happy I was to take a bite and discover this sweet sweet black sesame oozing out. SO HAPPY.
  • They sell sugar cane drinks! It’s called さとうきび. Noted.
  •  Couldn’t get myself to order stinky tofu with my travel companions. I hate the smell myself, but I love the texture. Now if I could do the same for durian…

Cultural lessons in English usage


“Fathers complain that they can’t have enough time to spend with their families because they are too busy.”

I don’t have the original Japanese with me, so I can’t guarantee the correctness of this sentence, but the keyword is 「できない」= can’t.

Grammatically, the sentence works. But instead of saying “I can’t have enough time”, native speakers would say “I don’t have enough time”.

I’m always at a cross-roads when I run into these sort of translations because I wonder if what I’m seeing is a cultural way of thought rather than an English mistake. Without knowing Japanese, an English teacher might immediately say, “No, that’s wrong,” but I would say, “This isn’t wrong, but Western speakers don’t say this because there is a nuance that there is nothing you can do about your lack of time.” If this is truly how they feel, I think they should be allowed to use it. While it might sound fatalist and dooming, being clear is reaffirming, and would lead to less misunderstanding.

Does this just confuse the students more?  Does it turn them off to English? Am I even qualified to teach this?

Or I could be just interpreting everything wrong, and should encourage putting more power to the speaker by changing the sentence to “can’t find enough time”?

Picnics at kyudo

On Tuesday and Friday nights, I go to the city’s kyudo dojo by the castle for a couple hours to train. Before winter, I committed myself to walking through the snow in whatever weather as much as I can in order to practice and be ready for my first test in the spring. It’s about 20-30 minutes to the dojo depending on how deep the snow is or icy the roads are.

Before the snowfall, I’d gone and bought a uniform to wear for practice. I didn’t want to practice with thick clothing on, and the uniform is surprisingly warm as long as I’ve got long sleeves and leggings underneath (Uniqlo heat tech!).

When I get to the dojo, I change, grab my arrows and set them in the stand. Then I pick out my bow and put on my bowstring. This isn’t necessary since all the bows available to borrow have strings on them, but someone had suggested I get my own bowstring, so after doing so, I’ve learned how to put on a bowstring on a Japanese longbow. This requires having to bend the longbow for the string to reach one end to the other, so I was really scared of snapping the bow when I first did it.

After everything is ready, I put on my chest protector (for women only, darn boobs), my glove liner, and then tie on the leather glove over that. Then it’s time to practice form on the straw barrels before the actual targets.

I’m going to spare all the boring details on perfecting the one form in kyudo, and fast-foward to the best part of practice. Since it’s winter and cold, we have an electric carpet on the floor, and heaters and stoves turned on in the center of the room. A kettle is boiling water on top of the stove. An hour into practice, the club boss brings out a tray of cups, tea bags, and other powder drinks, along with rice crackers and a variety snacks that people have brought.  The hot water is poured, we share the snacks, and chat.

In this time, I learn quite a bit:

  • Which snacks are good
  • The Aizu dialect
  • What jobs that people in town have
  • How an old man is able to flirt innocently with young ladies

“Imma eat all your potato chips!”

My supervisor is one of the kendo club advisors, and he sits next to me in the office. His co-advisor likes to come by and meet up to discuss club matters and students. They love to make jabs at each other. Today, they decided to include me.

<chatter chat chat, a jab here, a jab there>
Supe: Cat, this guy is crazy
Me: <playing along, but not culturally and socially adept enough to escalate> Craaaazy.
Supe: Crazy, 気狂い
I recall my high school Japanese teacher saying this was a bad and rude thing to say, but I’m an adult now!>
Co-advisor: Cat, you should tell the principal that this guy is so loud that you can’t do your work, and request to be moved.
Me: I see!
Supe: Cat, if you say that, I’m going to eat all your potato chips! <points at my snack drawer>
Me: My limited edition chips!

English Writing

Last year, around this time, I was working with the seniors on their English writing. It was a small class of about 10 people, and they were taking these extra classes to practice composing English sentences that they translate from Japanese. They vary from things like, “The rapid decline of the birthrate and the extension of the average lifespan has created many problems in modern society” to “I fell asleep while reading a book on the train and almost missed my stop, but luckily a friend from junior high school woke me up just in time”. This year, a whole class of about 30 seniors attended the writing practice class. And I’m getting students asking for help to correct their short essays every day.

I have a feeling that many college entrance exams are requiring students to write more English. It’s like how the GRE used to be all multiple choice, and suddenly, a change required test-takers to write a couple essays, to which all those anticipating to take the test lets out a resounding sigh.

A lot of students write direct translations, which comes off sounding very Japanese-like English (perfect grammar, but “different” word usage and non-traditional organization) and  but a few who’ve drilled themselves through practice, and reading a ton of model answers can write sounding very natural.

It’s really impressive, but necessary, as these students are applying to go to the best universities in Japan, competing on the world stage. But they are doing so at such a disadvantage: the fact that most of their teachers haven’t been properly trained to teach English composition, so that job goes to the native English speaker, the ALT. To be honest, I can only teach the basics of English composition: the introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, the stuff you learn in high school. Beyond that, I try to get them to question things, think, and dig (aka BS) for ideas. Writing was never my forte, but I’m finding myself to more interested now that I’m helping students of English use it.

So much that I even looked up what I needed to do to get a certificate in English composition because I feel so unqualified!

But it really brings up all the memories I have from all my English corrections in high school, especially from my personal essays. Comments like “redundant”, “word choice”, “relevance?” Being a computer science major, I avoided a lot of the writing classes, and technical writing was the only thing you needed to do. I can barely remember a required English writing class I took one summer in order to get it overwith. I think I got a B-, even though the instructor was kinda cute.

Accent privilege

Recently, I started to see privilege in having an American accent. You can go anywhere with it and be considered cool. But mostly, I’ve been told, understandable. It makes me wonder if the American accent was developed through generations of immigrants from everywhere in the world having to learn English, and the rules or pronunciation of American English simply made more sense to English learners than the rules of British English.

But back to accent privilege. Even in high school, the Viet-Am kids who were born in America would look down on the ones who spoke English with an accent. Even I was no exception to judging the kids that we used to call FOBs. Sure, we both spoke two languages, but I spoke better English than they did. And everyone else understood me better.

In Japan, students are learning English as a foreign language, and are also expected to be able to understand academic literature by their senior year. For the kids in Aizu, this is impossible without extra English courses outside of school, and only the students who can afford it can have this ability. And if you compare that to the American students, how many can actually read and understand academic papers in a foreign language like French and Spanish? Not to mention that English, French, and Spanish all fall under the Romance languages, while Japanese and English are completely in different language families.

So when someone says they know 9 different languages, I ask them which ones, and if they’re all from the same language family, then that’s a privilege to have been able to learn a language that share common roots with other ones, too. Japanese and Korean are in a separate language family all on their own.

When you meet a group of Asian people, all speaking English, but all with their own accent and style, who are you most likely to trust and work with?