Big Questions

Miraculously I’ve learned enough Japanese in the past year to survive in Japan and do adult things by myself, like get gas and buy train tickets .

In order to force myself to study, I found a private tutor who I meet with twice a week. Our  one-hour lessons consist of grammar practice and explanations, and we also enjoy conversation in Japanese about our lives and other big ideas.  He can’t really speak English, so in our lessons we primarily use Japanese.

Last week, he was teaching me the grammar for ‘have to’ and ‘don’t have to.’ For example, どよびにがっこうにいかなくてもいいです。 (doyobi o gakkou ni ikanakutemoiidesu, I dont have to go to school on Sunday.) After I struggled to complete the worksheet he gave me, he introduced a fascinating idea:

じんせいで たいせつな みっつの ことは なんですか?
Jinsei de taisetsu na mittsu no koto wa nandesuka?
What are the three most important things in your life?

Can you guess what he said next? I was so surprised by his answer:

  1. そうじ – souji – cleaning
  2. 笑う – warau – laughter
  3. ありがとう と 言う – arigatou – saying thank you

Actually, I wanted more explanation about these ideas, but I need to ask him again. He did tell me, though, that there is a Japanese proverb that says a clean room and toilet will bring you riches!

After the lesson, I couldn’t help but think about how I would answer the same question. It took me a few days to finalize my answer, and it might change again, but here’s my answer of the moment:

  1. helping others
  2. my health
  3. play

Why? Here’s my explanation:

Helping Others

Since I was born in California to a supportive family with too many blessings to count, I feel like the purpose of my life is to give back to the world in a big, big, big way. I think the purpose of my life is to contribute something major to society.

For example, I met an inspirational American who is currently improving a small community in Tianyar, Bali. Aaron Fishman started East Bali Cashews, and has helped hundreds of Balinese who were previously suffering from malnutrition and poverty. With his dedicated team, he created over 200 jobs for people -mostly women- who were previously unemployed, and started a local preschool with the profits. They hope to replicate their project on other islands after their factory is permanently established.

I volunteered and lived with them for 2 weeks in 2013, which you can see pictures of and read about here. Meeting them and learning about their lives was fate. I’m not sure how or when, but someday I want to do something similar to what they’ve done.

My Health

If I don’t have my health, I can’t help others or enjoy my life. Currently, one of my biggest priorities is eating well and working out.  I’m an adamant vegetarian (with the execption of fish) and try to be vegan as much as possible (for ethical and health reasons.) I want to exercise at least 3 or 4 times a week, and I’ve been successful with this goal because I’ve joined so many fun sports while I’ve been in Japan!


As I grow up, I am losing certain qualities. I am losing the ability to experience true freedom, as I now have to consider now what other people think of me.

But truly, I want to exist in a reality that I create. I don’t want to be controlled by society. I want my actions to be guided by my beliefs, not what society expects of me. I am inspired by small children and their fearlessness. By playing, and showing others that I can experience joy on a daily basis, I hope to inspire others to do the same.

This reminds me of my favorite Marianne Williamson quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, smart, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of the Earth. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I often think of her idea as I’m constantly second guessing myself – should I be doing this? Should I join this Japanese soccer team, even though none of the other players can speak English? Should I go and ask the PE teacher if I can join his class instead of sitting at my desk? Should I try to make friends with the person sitting next to me on the train? Then, I remind myself- my purpose here is not to shrivel up or hide, although sometimes I feel like it. I exist in this world to shine, and to share my positivity.

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Thanks for reading!

I’m curious to hear your answers. What are the three most important things to you?



View from a weekend hike


Some delightful moments


For the past 10 months, I’ve been an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher)  at two junior high schools in rural Japan. My bigger school has 380 students and is surrounded by rice paddies and rolling green hills. My visiting school is in a mountain valley that is famous for watermelon, and only has 40 students. I’m the only foreigner at both schools, and every day is rich in different ways. Some days I’m bored and unsatisfied, while other times I feel a deep and profound connection with students and teachers. I could easily complain, but its much more fulfilling and beneficial for my well-being to focus on the good. Here are a few of my best moments from the past few weeks.

Making Friends with the Music Teacher, 5/25

After lunch I usually alternate between playing basketball in the gym, playing frisbee outside, patrolling the halls trying to find students to talk to, or decompressing at my desk. For students, these precious 20 minutes are the only free time they have all day.

On this particular day, I had just finished eating lunch in the noisy cafeteria, and I was walking with the new music teacher who barely speaks English. I feel a connection with her because we are almost the same age, but my Japanese is poor and her English is nonexistent.

In past conversations, I’ve asked her simple questions in Japanese – なんさいですか (Nansai desu ka? How old are you? ) but I couldn’t think of anything in this moment.

But suddenly I remembered that she had studied concert piano, so after our typical “How are you?” exchange, I spontaneously blurted, “I want to hear you play the piano!” To my delight, she understood, and answered: “Okay!” with a big smile. “When?” I asked. “Now?” she replied.

Sometimes my impulsiveness gets me in trouble; other times it brings me miracles.

We hurried past giggling groups of pre-teens to the music room. She sat at the piano bench, spread her music out, and began to play. For the next 20 minutes, I felt like I had transcended my own reality. I could sense her years of training in her posture and subtlety. Just an hour ago we were struggling to communicate, but now I felt we had unified.   As she played, the language wall that had existed a few minutes ago seemed to dissipate.

Then, she pulled out the sheet music for ‘Frozen,’ and I belted it kareoke style. A few students stuck their heads in, wondering what was going on. When the bell rang, it was like the wall had risen again, but with a few cracks this time. Now we have a connection, and as we continue to communicate, the language barrier will crumble.


Amber’s Passport, 6/2

I’m always looking for excuses to share my ideas, rather than just read and repeat the textbook. Recently, there was a good chance for this in ni-nensei (2nd year) classes. Their unit features a young traveler showing their passport to a customs officer at the airport. As an avid explorer, I am really excited about travel and wanted to share my feelings. So I projected my passport on the overhead screen and showed them my stamps. I encouraged them to read out loud  the names of the countries I’ve been to in the past few years:

~ New Zealand ~ Australia ~ Thailand ~ Cambodia ~ Vietnam ~ Taiwan ~ Indonesia ~ Malaysia ~ The Philippines ~ Japan ~

After college I traveled for 28 months, with about 9 months in New Zealand and 10 months in Australia with working holiday visas, and the rest of the time bouncing around Southeast Asia.  This time abroad hugely impacted my sense of self. It made me more independent and confident.  I hope that students can feel my attitude and be inspired to have their own adventures.

“Hello Goodbye” 6/8

At my visiting school, there is a small class of about 12 ichi-nensei (first year) students  who always expect me to sing as soon as I walk in the room. I’ve only taught their class about five times, and every time I’ve brought my ukulele and sang for them before the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) arrived.

I didn’t have my ukulele, but I was surprised that one girl knew the word a cappella! She approached me and opened the textbook to a page with songs on it. One of them was “Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles. I waved over another girl to sing with me. I imagine it was quite a shock for the JTE to see me and the student belting out a tune in front of her friends before we had even started class.

“It’s A Small World After All,”  5/30

In the san-nensei (3rd year) textbook, there is a brief mention of the song “It’s a Small World.” So naturally, I borrowed my teacher’s guitar and sang it for the class, without any practice. At first I struggled to find the right key and made a few mistakes, but I think it went rather well because my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) asked me to sing it for all his classes.

Sometimes, I wonder if these students think I’m crazy when I burst out into spontaneous song (and dance) in class. I hope to not only teach them English, but also show them that its okay to be loud and inspired and weird.


Running with students

My sometimes boring job as an English teacher in Japan is punctuated with extreme moments of joy and fulfillment. Its like a reflection of my life and personality; ups are skyrocketing elation, and lows feel like earth-shattering despair. One student with the same disposition asked me recently how to put this into easier words, and here’s what I said:

“When I’m happy, I feel very happy. But when I’m sad, I’m very sad.”

It’s simple yet true. But usually I try to focus on the good, because I find it to be more productive and uplifting than complaining.

Last week, I had one of those moments, when I felt like I was in the right place at the right time, and I was contributing in an important way. It wasn’t in a classroom. It was on a shady road outside of my small visiting school, when I was getting ready to run with my students.

Located in the mountains and just 10 minutes from the sea of Japan, my visiting school only has 36 students. Since the number is so small, I’ve made it my goal to learn their names. I have more than half, now, and when I go there every Wednesday, my brain is churning trying to remember.

So in that moment, I was surrounded by the 15 teenage girls, collectively gathering our courage to push ourselves, and – for once – I was feeling completely included. For a moment, I felt really appreciated. Teachers were impressed and surprised that I had asked to join students for their race, and students had welcomed me into their circle of friends, which had previously seen like an impenetrable obstacle.

At that moment, just before the 3.6 kilometer race for girls, a group of three boys approached me and begged me to run with them. “Amber! Run with us!” They pleaded in a mix of Japanese and English. It felt good to be wanted! I had about 10 seconds to decide to go with them or the girls, but I knew that the boys were too fast for me and would leave me in the dust. So I stuck with my initial decision to run with the girls. And I’m glad I did!

I made a new friend, too; an ichi-nensei (first year) student named Meika* who I never had the chance to connect with before. She asked me, “Hashiru ishoni?” (‘Let’s run together,’) and I happily agreed. During the race, I trailed her. She was just a little faster than me, so it was a good challenge for me to keep up with her!

The 3.6 kilometer race was in a valley surrounded by rice paddies next to their school. When I stopped panting long enough to look up, I felt in awe of the natural beauty of the scene before me. The rice paddies are filled with water, so they reflect the mountains above. After a heavy rain the day before, the sky was perfectly blue, with only a few fluffy clouds.

Meika is the younger sister of a boy who I worked with closely last year for the English Speech Contest. Even though she doesn’t know much English yet, I can tell by the way she looks at me that she is interested. (This is a common pattern; if I notice a student looking at me, unblinkingly and without hesitation, I can tell they are interested in English and foreigners, and I try to make more of an effort to talk with them.)

In that moment, running with her, I tried to forget my negativity about my job. I tried to let go the feelings of isolation when people ignore me, and I tried to focus on the beautiful scene that was taking place before me. It was almost like an out-of-body experience; This is my life, I told myself, as I eyed the finish line.

I’m sure Meika slowed down a little bit for me; she kept glancing behind her to make sure I was still there. Huffing and puffing and sweating profusely, I managed to tail her until the end, when we both started sprinting when we saw the finish line. All the boys were waiting there and cheering: “Ganbare!” (“You can do it!”) and “Fight-o!” (“Fight!”) They were so genki! (excited!) and adorable.

Out of 20 runners, she was number 14. I came in shortly after her, so I guess I was 14.5. One of my goals was to not be the slowest runner, so I achieved it!

I want to take this experience, put it in a bottle, and open it again when I feel down or underused. Running with the students, and talking with them after the race, seeing them approach me and make small talk, this is why I came to Japan. I hope that I’m helpful when I repeat the textbooks, or say the words “thirteen” and “thirty” over and over again so students learn the difference, but when students realize that I’m human – tired, sweaty, and wanting to connect and be included – this is when I am making a real impact. When students see me as an equal – not as an authority – outside of the classroom, I feel like I’m making more of a difference. I want to be a good teacher, but I also want to be their friend. When I play sports with them, or connect with them in a non-academic setting, I feel more connected.







Speech Contest for Second-Years

Last month I participated in our annual ni-nensei (second-year) speech contest. The topic, ‘My Favorite Thing,’ was broad enough to elicit a myriad of ideas. Topics ranged from ‘My Clarinet’ to ‘Minecraft’ to ‘Watching the News.’

I was particularly petrified, because my superior asked me to make a speech in Japanese to open the contest. After all, if students have to speak in a language that is not native to them, it’s only fair that I should have to do the same…

I wrote my speech in English, and my supervisor helped me translate it into Japanese. My speech was about a Japanese anime that I recently started watching called “Haikyu.” (It’s about a junior high school volleyball team.) If I had to write genuinely about my favorite thing, I probably would have chosen a different topic, like teaching, nature, sports, traveling, or cooking, but I wanted to choose something my students could relate to.

I practiced over and over, showed it to my private Japanese teacher and a few friends, made a few revisions, and painstakingly memorized it. When I got up in front of my audience  of 130 students and 5 teachers, I was visibly shaking.

In stark contrast, ten minutes later, my supervisor asked me to make impromptu commentary between speakers, in English.  I spoke confidently and without a waver in my voice.

I hope that my nervousness made them feel better about their own language learning endeavors.

Thankfully, the next  15 contestants were significantly better than me. I really enjoyed seeing the shy students surprise everyone with their eloquence. One small girl who rarely speaks delivered a lovely speech about her favorite game, Dragon Quest. I’m sure students didn’t realize she was so good at English until they heard her voice amplified from behind a microphone.

The winning speech entitled ‘To The Anime Haters,’ was by a student who lived in Kentucky for the first 8 years of his life. His father is a businessman, and his accent is quite native, with a slightly southern drawl. I think he impressed everyone with his businesslike attitude and native accent, although I doubt that everyone could understand him. Here’s one of his most impressive  lines:  “To make profit from lowering birth rate, internalization,and decreasing population, anime has the potential to become a big industry. This is why I think  anime… is a big chance for Japan.”

I love speech contests, and I already got to accompany one talented student to Tokyo last year for the All-Japan Speech Contest.  Unfortunately, our winner this year isn’t eligible because he lived in America.

However, our second place boy made a beautiful speech about his classmates. His best line was: “Some of my classmates can run fast, are gamers, crybabies, small people, and so on…” It was a good line, because everyone knew who he was talking about.

He has a genuine smile, and good stage presence. If he can think of a good topic, maybe I can take him to Tokyo for the finals, too!

Open Letter to JTEs

Note to readers: JTE’s are “Japanese Teachers of English.” My job is an ALT, or “Assistant Language Teacher.” When I am in the classroom I am almost always supported by a JTE. JTE’s usually speak English well, and many of them have studied in foreign countries. I have four JTE’s who I work with at my school.

Imagine you move to a foreign country. You don’t speak the language well, or not at all. You have a new job, in an office, filled with people who are very, very busy.

Maybe it’s not a surprise that many ALT’s cope with feelings of isolation. Since we are only responsible for teaching English classes, on days when there are no classes scheduled, there is very little for us to do. So we must be self-sufficient, and think of our own projects, or use our time however we like. But sometimes I feel like I’m invisible, or I’m inside an impenetrable bubble.

Teachers are friendly when I first walk in; I’m always greeted with a chorus of “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning.) But after that, it’s rare if any teacher approaches me. If I’m not assertive and don’t start my own conversations, I miss out on interacting with my coworkers.

I need to take action to be involved, but at the same time I don’t want to feel like I’m bothering anyone. Maybe I just need to develop an emotional wall, and not take it so personally when they are just going about their normal routines. The problem is I’m a very social person, and I feel like social interaction is directly related to my happiness. Part of my experience here is learning how to cope with being alone.

On days when I have many English classes scheduled, I feel fulfilled and excited about my job. I can help lead and plan classes, interact with the students, give high fives, and share smiles. I can see the students start to open. One student who never made eye contact with me last year recently invited me to try pole vaulting with him at the track and field practice when I was there last week. Little by little, I can see them changing.

Between classes I venture out into the hallways and try to connect with students. I play basketball or frisbee with them after lunch. Sometimes during the day I ask to join PE classes, which the PE teacher has graciously let me join. I’ve been to a kendo and a gymnastics class so far. I haven’t yet, but I hope to observe some other classes, too.

Some ALT’s use their free time at work to study Japanese. Others do online programs to obtain a Master’s degree. Both, I think, are good ideas, but I’m still reluctant to do things at work that are so unrelated to my school, especially given how hard the other teachers are working.

So should I be active in making change, trying to implement new projects even if no one seems to care, or should I focus on my own future and try to get my masters degree while I work here? I’m still unsure.

Really, I want to be involved and included; I want to make friends with the teachers. I don’t want to be ignored. I’ve talked with other ALTs about this, and I know a few who said they feel the same way.

If there are any JTE’s reading this, please remember that we came here to be involved. Please approach us and talk with us. Spare 30 seconds of your day to have a friendly interaction. For me especially, and maybe I can speak for other ALT’s: friendliness makes a big difference for my emotional well-being. Even eye contact and smiling is a good way to establish a connection.

I can understand why many teachers are reluctant to talk with me. First of all, I think many of them aren’t confident in their English abilities. I can commiserate with them, because I’m terrified to speak Japanese.  I’m afraid I’ll unavoidably make a stupid mistake, and won’t be understood, or will be judged for my inadequacy. Maybe these thoughts are not justified, but unfortunately they keep reappearing.

Sometimes, I gather up the courage to ask a simple question in Japanese, like “Where do you live?” or “Do you have any children?” while I am standing by the coffee machine with another teacher, and pray that I’ll be able to understand their answer and continue the conversation.

Probably the main reason why teachers don’t talk to me very often is because they are extremely busy. Not only do they plan and teach classes, they also must supervise an after school activity, which happens from 4:15 until 6. These activities – such as soccer, table tennis, art club, the school band, and more –  are an integral part of a junior high school student’s experience and identity.

In addition, as far as I can tell, most teachers are responsible for a myriad of mysterious jobs involving Microsoft excel and an army of clipboards. They must write and grade their own tests, record data and report information about their school to the school district, and I’m sure they have many more duties that I am unaware of.

Most teachers arrive at school at 7 am and leave, at the earliest, 6 or 7 pm. Most teachers also come to work on the weekends to lead their club activities. The Japanese work ethic is quite extreme compared to my family and friends back home, who think of their jobs as just one aspect of their lives, and fill their extra time with hobbies. From what I’ve noticed, Japanese people put their hearts and souls into their jobs, and I respect them for their devotion. I’m sure I have a lot to learn from them about hard work and commitment.

But despite their admirable dedication to the students and their work, the ALT is a part of the school. Truly, individual teachers can make a difference in an ALT’s experience.   Just a simple conversation for 30 seconds can make a big difference.

It reminds me of another situation. Last weekend, I was at a small train station in the outskirts of Tokyo, trying to decipher the kanji on a train map. I was just about to ask for help from a random passerby, when a young Japanese woman approached me and asked me if I needed help. Although I don’t like to generalize, I have to admit her kind gesture made me think differently about all Japanese people, who (for the most part) I thought were too shy to approach strangers. The same could be said for my school; if one teacher takes time out of their day to talk with me, it can have a huge effect on the rest of my day.

The same could be said for any situation. Be friendly. Smile at people. Maybe its more ingrained in my California culture, but for me friendliness makes a big impact on my psyche. One smile can make a difference.

Thanks for reading. Any comments or feedback is deeply appreciated.

And here are some random nature pictures from the last few months!