My Recent Published Work

A few years ago, I was traveling alone in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contemplating five hundred chairs set up in front of the enormous Tha Phae gate in the old quarter, when I was randomly approached by another traveler: “Hey, do you know what’s going on here?” I was talking to perpetual vagabond Greg Rogers, who has been traveling for more than ten years after he sold his house, quit his job and decided to become a full-time travel writer. We never found out what the chairs were for, but I made a lifelong friend!

We started talking, and I learned about his success funding his travels from the different websites he runs. He found out I was a writer too and asked me to contribute to his travel sites. Now, five years later, we’ve kept in touch, and I just wrote an article called “How to Move to Spain” for his newly redesigned StartBackpacking.com. You can read my story here:
https://www.startbackpacking.com/travel/how-to-move-to-spain/

I taught English in Japan for two years with the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) Program in the mountinous and snowy Fukui Prefecture. There were over a hundred native teachers who comprised the foreign community in Fukui, many of whom became my close friends.

After I left, I was asked by our community magazine called JET Fuel for an interview. They talked with four people who had left the program and moved on to different things. I’m teaching English in Spain, Akito is starting medical school, Stuart is teaching in China, and Vienna is working for a Japanese company in Los Angeles.

You can read it here! My interview is on page 53.

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My New Life in Spain

My feelings towards my new life as an English teacher in Spain change drastically from moment to moment. At times, I think… Wow. This is amazing. This is such an awesome opportunity to live and work abroad and experience a new culture. I’m so lucky. I have thoughts like this after a great class at school, or while exploring a new city.

Then there are other moments when I feel so lost… Amber, you’re ridiculous. Why do you keep moving to countries where you barely know the language?

I was stuck in this thought cycle last weekend at a salsa dancing club in Valencia. It was a combination of two new life challenges: speaking Spanish and my identity as a dancer. My thoughts were battling my experience, and I couldn’t help but think, You’re an athlete, not a dancer. And the noise from the club made it impossible for me to understand what the sweaty men were saying, even if they were speaking English.

These moments when I feel completely and utterly lost because of the language barrier remind me of my two years in Japan. From 2014 to 2016 I lived in Fukui Prefecture as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, and I also went into that experience knowing zero Japanese. (Am I brave or am I stupid? is a question I ask myself…) 

After leaving Japan, I only had two months of transition time at home in California, and then I traveled with my dad in France and Switzerland for three weeks doing via ferratas, and now I’m completely immersed in Spain. The food, the language, the culture, the history, people’s attitudes, the daily schedule, my role at school… so much is drastically different!

The newness can be overwhelming at times, but luckily I’ve found a comfortable apartment where I can decompress. I live on the liveliest street in a town called Almendralejo, population 34,000, with three flatmates. I have my own room but I share the living room and kitchen with two Spanish university students, Carmen and Fede, and another English teacher named Margrit from New York. We have a balcony overlooking a big plaza boasting three restaurants and a playground, which is often filled with kids buzzing around on scooters. I can walk to a bar or a grocery store in 2 minutes, and rent is ridiculously cheap.

I teach at two schools. One is a private Jesuit high school and elementary school in a pueblo of 2,800 people called Villafranca, which is about a 15 minute drive from my apartment. I catch a ride to school with a young teacher who wants to improve her English, so we alternate speaking English and Spanish. We’ve become friends, and  she’s invited me to go salsa dancing with her a few times.

The other is a public high school in a town of 3,700 called Hornachos which is nestled below a small mountain range. The weaving road to Hornachos, next to red flat lands and speckled with olive trees, reminds me of Australia. I pass the 30 minute ride to school by practicing my Spanish with my generous coworkers who give me lifts.

My work life is satisfying and challenging. When I first arrived here I told my supervisors that I had two years of teaching experience, and that I really wanted to take an active role in teaching. So in my 12 classroom teaching hours, I’m completely responsible for planning and teaching 8 of those on my own. After studying the material given to me by the main teachers, I design a lesson filled with interactive presentations, songs, games, role-play, debates, or whatever I can think of. I’m really grateful for the chance to use my creativity! 

At the elementary school, I’m teaching social science to 3 classes of rambunctious eight, nine, and ten-year-olds. The textbook features topics like “The Water Cycle” and “The Geosphere,” and it’s a great challenge for me to make these subjects accessible for them.

I use some techniques I learned in Japan, such as walking around and checking their pronunciation individually (with many smiles and high-fives!) I’ve learned quite a few classroom games for teaching vocabulary, and I’m always learning more. 

I’m picking up quite a few classroom management ideas, too. I use a call and response rhythm game or a countdown to get their attention when they become noisy.

In my free time, I go to the gym, dance zumba, cook vegan food, study Spanish, or hang out with my roommates. I travel at least once a month. So far I’ve been to Madrid, Caceres, Badajoz, Seville, Salamanca, and Valencia on weekends, and I have a long list of places I want to go!

Although it was a difficult decision, I decided to stay in Spain for my winter holidays. I will be volunteering at a youth hostel in a small pueblo outside of Granada. I hope that my experience there will be up to par to what I did last winter vacation!

Last Christmas I volunteered on an oyster farm in Kumihama Bay, Japan, where I learned all about the process of farming oysters, and got experience life as a farmer for a week. In the village I only met two people who spoke English: Atsushi, the generous man who coordinated my stay, and Goshia, another volunteer from Poland who became a very good friend. Even though it was cold, my week volunteering there tops my list of experiences in Japan.

I love living somewhere new and learning how everything works! Atsushi told me that when he lived in Canada, his mind expanded 100 times, and I can completely relate. Every time I live in a new place, I can feel my brain growing… there are so many possibilities for this life!

 

 

 

Scaling Cliffs in Switzerland and France

 

Imagine yourself on a cliff, your harness tied into a metal cable via 2 carabiners and straps, standing on metal rungs looking straight down 800 feet. You are above an expansive green valley high in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps, south of Geneva.  An hour ago, it was raining, but the sky has cleared, and rays of light filter through the clouds like a message from God.

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This is the view you see. Your heart is beating quickly, yet you are safe. Does this sound terrifying to you? Would you try it anyway?

In Italian, Via Ferrata translates to “the Iron Way.” The origins date back to the First World War, where some Via Ferratas were built in Italy to help troops cross over the Dolomites efficiently. Now, they are the perfect excursion for thrill-seekers, and make epic cliffs more accessible to adventurers of all ages and levels of athleticism.

I got the chance to try 17 via ferratas this summer with my dad in the Swiss Alps and in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps, north and south of Geneva. We zoomed through valleys and up tiny winding mountain roads in a rental car, following advice from “Via Ferratas of the French Alps” by Richard Miller. Our original goal was to to cram as many vias as we could into our two weeks together.  Later our goal changed just to do the highest rated vias. Since my uncle Jimmy had been climbing with Dad a few weeks prior, he graciously left me his harness and carabiners, so all I had to do was buy a helmet and gloves and we were ready to go.
 The guidebook we were using rates vias from 1-5 and with three factors: difficulty, exposure, and accessibility, A, B, or C. Difficulty is how physically challenging it is, exposure is how high off the ground it is, and accessibility is how long it takes to walk to the start. Dad first wanted to check I was capable of managing the equipment, so we started with some easier routes. The first few we did in the Savoie region were a 2,2, A called St. Sorlin d’Arves and a 3,3, A at St. Colomban des Villards, Savoie. These required a low level of athleticism, and we saw kids doing them too.

Once I realized that I could easily do a 3-3, I tried to convince Dad to let me try a 5-5. He finally conceded at Les Rois Mages, Assois, France. The scariest part of that route is a single-line bridge, with only one shaky wire to walk on and one to hold on to, and a huge drop-off beneath you that you are forced to look down at as you sidestep across. (We always wondered how we would get back off if we fell off that part. I think I would go about it like a koala.) After that route, I felt the true draw of via ferratas: a combination of fear and exhilaration, and at the end a huge sense of relief mixed with accomplishment and achievement.

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This was one of the scariest moments of my life.

This was my dad’s second summer of doing Via Ferratas in a rental car ($13 per day from the Geneva airport on the French side). He discovered them in 2010 when his friend Anne Claude took him on one in Engleberg, Switzerland.

“I kept thinking, ‘the Swiss are crazy,’ as I was climbing,” my dad told me. “But then here I was on a cliff with incredible views feeling safe. I was hooked.”

He bought the harness, helmet, and two via ferrata straps and caribeeners, and spent the summer driving around Switzerland in a rental car.

Getting to the via ferrata was often an adventure in itself. Many vias require a hike in, and sometimes it’s tricky to find the trail.  On Via Ferrata des Orres (5,5,B) in Crolles, France, we almost gave up after a 5 mile hike and bush walking next to the cliff face, but then I backtracked and realized we had missed the unmarked trail leading to the start.

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One of my favorite vias we did was Crotte a Carret (5,5,A) in France. After a 2 mile downhill hike, we reached the cave where it started. In the 1800’s, Jean Carret built a little dwelling in the cliffside next to this cave so he could do prehistoric digs.  Now one of the hardest vias in the world starts from inside it.

 

Another highlight was the via out of St. Hilaire du touvet, near Crolles, France. This via was a 5,5,A, with many laybacks and small holds. It was raining that day, so we weren’t sure if we would be able to do it. But we decided to hike to the start and see if the weather would take mercy on us. Luckily, the sky cleared just at the right time, so we were able to do the climb. I saw paragliders swooping by us along the way, as well as a mountain goat leaping down the cliff.​

 

Along the way, we stayed at youth hostels and cheap hotels. As I try to follow a mostly vegan diet I was mostly buying my food at grocery stores and preparing my meals on the go. We snacked a lot on trail mix and fruit in between vias. I enjoyed cooking for my dad in our hotel room.

 

When I’m doing a via, I forget how high up I am. Just like anything, it’s an exercise in mindfulness and being present. I’d try to unite my movements and my breath, and observe the climb before starting each section, planning my movements ahead of time. When seen in sections, a huge overtaking becomes a set of steps. This way of thinking reminds me of the main point of one of my Japanese students speeches: “Set small goals that you can reach!”

My dad and I talk about flow, which is the feeling you get when everything else seems to slip away, and all that’s left is you and the rock. You’re not worried about anything else, but completely and totally in the present moment, one with your breath and your motions. On vias, especially on difficult ones, I could feel my reality dissipate, all my to-do lists and worries about the future melt into nothingness, as I just focused on ascending the cliff I was dangling from. It’s a rare feeling, but I want to cultivate it in my every day life. I’ve had these moments fleetingly in yoga and meditation, or other sports like ultimate frisbee. All that matters is the task at hand.

Next summer, my dad will return to Europe to do more via ferratas in the Italian Dolomites, and I hope to join him! I’m so blessed to have an active and adventurous father, and I want to take advantage of these summers we have together to do something epic. Does anyone want to join us?

Santa Barbara Summer

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This summer has been a whirlwind. After closing my life out in Japan – a long process which involved deep-cleaning my apartment, closing out my bank account and transferring money home, cancelling my local phone number, selling my car, bike and electric piano, saying goodbye to all my friends, students, and co-workers – I finally went home.

On July 26 I took two trains, a plane, and a bus from Fukui, Japan to Santa Barbara, California.

 

I was there for ten weeks, giving me ample time to reunite with family and friends and even do a bit of traveling.  I made sure to bask in Santa Barbara’s natural beauty, too. I spent many morning jogging and doing yoga on the beach.  On Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, I played ultimate frisbee at East Beach and jumped in the ocean afterwards.

It’s amazing to see what everyone has been doing during the past few years. Several friends are pumping out their PhD’s – Natalie at University of California, Santa Barbara, Nari at Arizona State University- and my friend Emily just had a baby! Gina became a nurse, and Hannah Ruth is doing massage, dancing, and working at a church.  Tessa moved to Seattle and found a job there, and Julia is works in animation in Los Angeles.

I think summer is an ideal time to visit Santa Barbara not only because of the perfect weather. Summer in SB also boasts amazing farmers markets, which I went to almost every Tuesday and Saturday. In early August, Santa Barbara comes alive for Fiesta, also known as Old Spanish Days, which is a huge celebration with flamenco dancing, parades, food stalls, and streets filled with confetti.

My cousin Bridget has a grown-up job, which is so weird because I always imagine her as my little cousin. I used to babysit her and do her makeup (poorly), and now she is living on her own in Oakland! Her sister Lindsey is studying at UC San Diego but was home for the summer, and we had a blast eating smoothies and going to the rock climbing gym.

One weekend, I hitched a ride up to San Francisco with Bridget, Lindsey and their parents Andy and Kate to attend my first music festival. Outside Lands was held in Golden Gate Park, and lucky for me I had a free place to stay with Kate’s sister. I tried to connect with my friends who live in San Francisco, like my friend Amanda from elementary school, who is now working as a tattoo artist! I saw a friend from university too, Prescott, who lived in Israel for a few years but is back in California now.

On one of the days of the music festival, I walked 9 miles from where I was staying to Golden Gate Park, passing through Mission District, the Castro, and Haight-Ashbury. While I think it would be a fun place to live, I was struck by the gentrification of the city. Imagine juice shops with lines out the door selling $9 smoothies next to pan-handlers in every park.

It was also great to see my grandparents and cousins Jennifer and Brandon, who live in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. My cousin Brandon is over six feet tall now! He’s a good basketball player, and we had fun shooting hoops and swimming in their pool. My mom’s dad is 99, and having his 100th birthday this year! Power to him!

Stay tuned for updates from the second and third chapters of my summer: climbing in Switzerland, and France, and moving to Spain!

A Gratifying Ending: My last week of teaching, and feeling proud

My Last Week of Teaching

July 17-32

Two years went by in the blink of an eye! This week I taught the final classes to my Japanese junior high school students. I’d been thinking and thinking, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the question: What should I do for my last lessons with my lovely students who I might never see again?

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I made this poster for the English classroom. I hope they remember me!

I settled on two simple activities: a game and a song. The song is called “When I’m Gone,” also known as “The Cup Song,” and its fun because every student gets a cup to drum on while we’re singing. The lyrics were quite appropriate for the occasion:

“When I’m gone, when I’m gone. You’re going to miss me when I’m gone! You’re going to miss me by my hair, you’re going to miss me everywhere, you’re sure going to miss me when I’m gone.”

I passed out cups, and demonstrated the drumming in slow-motion a few times. After practicing it a few times, I asked students to put their desks together in pairs (or make a circle if the group was small enough) so we could play the rhythm game and pass the cups. Some students loved it, and asked to play more after class.

The game I chose was simple “shiritori,” an easy word game where teams compete against each other.  The last letter of the first word starts the next word. For example: egg, giraffe, elephant, tree, etc… For ichi-nensei (first-years, or 12-13 year olds) I accepted words of any length, but for san-nensei (third years, or 14-15 year olds) I asked for words with five or more letters. I divided the class into 6 teams, and the first student wrote a word on the board and passed the chalk to the next player. Everyone loved it! By the second round, the whole class was standing and cheering for their teammates.

It’s an easy and fun game, and good for road trips or train rides. I play it in Japanese sometimes with my friends (For example: origami, itadakimasu, sushi, ichigo, etc) I hope that some of my students will play it again someday!

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I put this in the hallway to explain to students and teachers about my plans after Japan.  In retrospect the English I used was a little bit advanced, but I hope they got the idea.

Feeling Proud

For the past 2 years, I’ve been working at two junior high schools in Japan. Midori* has 380 students, and Chugo* has just 40. I went to Chugo every Wednesday, and Midori every other day. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience, I’m really proud of my efforts at both schools.

Midori

My first year at Midori, I strove to recreate the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) position. When I first arrived there, there was no clear system for making a team teaching schedule. The Japanese English teachers I was working with were so overwhelmed with their other work so they rarely talked to me before our classes together (which is a problem for many ALTs!). I felt that I had to fight for change, for my own sanity as well as for my successor and every other ALT after us.

So I asked other ALTs for advice, and came up with a new system for the schedule, and presented it to my supervisor. I made my own schedule and printed out copies of it for my co-workers the week before classes.

The whole experience was a mental battle, since everything was happening in Japanese, and in order to feel involved I had to take action. So I decided to be extra friendly, and made a point to talk with teachers as much as possible. I consider myself to be an extremely outgoing person, but the language barrier made it harder for me to connect. I came to Japan knowing zero Japanese, and only 3 people besides me at my school could speak English well (the other English teachers.) Some of the other teachers knew a little English, but it was a constant challenge to fight feelings of isolation at school.

My first year, I wasn’t confident in my Japanese, but I knew I had to push myself to communicate with coworkers and new friends. So I found a tutor, and started meeting with him twice a week. Mr. Nakamura, who I met through a mutual friend, is one of the most patient people I’ve ever met. At the end of each lesson I was always surprised that I had been able to communicate in Japanese for an hour! After classes with him, I think I realized that ideal language classes should be conducted almost entirely in that language.

Thanks to Mr. Nakamura, during my last few months in Japan, I noticed myself using more Japanese with my co-workers. This helped me strengthen relationships with teachers. I made it a goal to have a pleasant exchanges with every teacher at the school, and talk to at least 3 teachers every day, and most days I did it.

At the end of year staff party,  almost every teacher wanted to shake my hand and offer some kind words.  They also gave me a beautiful book with hand-written messages, in Japanese and English, wishing me good luck and thanking me for my time.

Besides talking with teachers, I’m proud of the way I used my free time at school. Junior high school ALTs often have an excess of free time, because there are monthly tests at school which emphasize reading, writing, and listening more than speaking. Before the tests, team teaching classes often get cancelled as teachers want their students to prepare for the tests.  I didn’t want to stay at my desk during these long bouts of free time. So I found ways to be as active as possible. My first year, I made it my goal to participate with every after school club – basketball, soccer, volleyball, track and field, baseball, badminton, table tennis, soft tennis, art club, band – and I did it! I also ran the school ‘marathon’ with students.

 

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All students at the school are required to complete the race! It’s 3k for girls and 5k for boys. (We’re not supposed to show student’s faces so I made them happy. )

Teaching the Special Ed Class

At my desk in the teachers room, the katakago (special education) teacher sat across from me. She always seemed exhausted, with a class of 5 rambunctious special education students to manage all to herself. When I walked by her room, I noticed they were louder and rowdier than other classes of 30 very quiet, respectful, rule-abiding students.  I knew she couldn’t speak English at all, so I was a little hesitant to make friends with her. But once I gathered my courage to start talking with her, I asked her if I could help teach English to her students. She immediately smiled and said yes, of course!

In the next few months I taught with her several times. She stood in the back and helped with classroom management while I directed the action of the class. It was so fun! We sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” a song that they vaguely knew but had forgotten, and then played Simon Says using the same vocabulary. We also played charades and pictionary. They loved it!

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Goodbye Midori!

Goodbye to my Visiting School

While Midori is in a valley surrounded by rice fields, Chugo is a tiny school nestled in the mountains behind my apartment. I really looked forward to Wednesdays there. Students and teachers at smaller schools are still busy with classes and after school sports, but small class sizes make a strong sense of community that was rather welcoming.

The English teacher at Chugo, Ms. Horie*, was a pleasure to work with. She told me early on that the only time she had to practice English was talking to the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher, or me!)  who came once a week, so I always made it a point to talk with her a lot. She always made time to discuss lesson plans with me. We taught some great classes together, including a few demonstration classes where visiting teachers from other schools came to watch us. In one of our most memorable classes, the unit of the textbook was “Fair Trade,” and we had students make skits about shopping for fair trade items. She conducts all of her classes almost entirely in English, which I really appreciated.

Chugo only had two clubs after school, table tennis and badminton. The table tennis coach was also the social studies teacher, who was a young man about my age who could speak English quite well. We became friends and I invited him to my salsa dancing club, which he joined several times. Thanks to my friendship with him, I felt comfortable joining table tennis every Wednesday. I grew up playing occasionally with my dad on our table at home, so I thought I was good until I played against a Japanese 12-year-old. Those kids are machines! They play 6 days a week, so even the tiniest students were more skilled than me.

On my last day at Chugo , Ms. Horie organized a special ceremony for me. I said a goodbye speech, which I chose to make in Japanese (for added challenge!), and one student said a speech to me in English thanking me for my two years with them. I was crying as they handed me a beautiful scrapbook with beautiful notes and photos from each student. It’ll be my treasure forever!

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Here’s the English room at Midori. Above my blue poster in the lower left, you can see all the previous English teacher’s posters.

Amber’s Farewell Speech

Here’s my speech (in English and romanji.) It took me more than a month to think of the message, write it in English, have my Japanese tutor help me translate it, and memorize it. I said it at both schools. At Midori , I had to say it in front of 400 students and teachers!

Hello everyone! I’m leaving Japan next week.
Minasan konnichiwa! Watashiwa raishu nihon o hanaremasu.
I’m going to miss you! I was really glad to teach you.
Totemo samishii desu! Minasan ni oshiero koto ga dekite, honto ni ureshikata desu.
But now I’m going to teach English in Spain.
Dakedo kondo Supein de eigo o oshieru koto ni narimashita.
You are all wonderful people.
Midori Chugakkou no minasan mo subarashii desu.
Before I leave Japan, I have an important message for you.
Nihon o hanareru mae ni, watashi kara no taisetsu na massage o otsutaeshimasu.
Communication is thirty percent language, and seventy percent feeling.
Communication wa kotoba ga san jyu percento dake desu. Kanjyo ga nana jyu percento desu.
If you speak from your heart, you will be understood.
Moshi kokoro o komete hanaseba, aite ni wakkate moraemasu.
For example, use gesture, eye contact, smile, expression, body language, intonation, and so on.
Tatoeba, eye contacto, egao, hyojyo, miburiteburi, intonation, nado mo yuko desu.
Be brave and follow your dreams!
Yuki o motte, yume o oikakete kudasai.
Also, special thanks to Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Ms. Z for taking care of me.
Saigo ni X sensei, Y sensei, Z sensei osewa ni nari arigatou gozaimashita.
For the last two years, thank you very much.
Ni nen kan honto ni arigatou gozaimashita.
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Goodbye Japan! Sayonara! Mata ne!

*I changed the names of my schools and the teachers I worked with to protect their privacy.