”Vacations are for students, not for teachers”
On the last day of the school term, I found a timetable of the winter vacation on my desk. I didn’t think much of it as I’d previously asked my vice principle whether I’d have to work during the vacations and he’d said no. Yet, reality hit me when I gave a Christmas card to my supervisor and she said, ”Even though it’s a working day!”. I quickly explained to her that I’d already had the ‘OK’ from the vice principle that I wasn’t needed, but apparently that was incorrect and I was expected to come into school. ”What for?” I thought, there were no lessons during the holidays! It turns out I was wrong again, as there are lessons for the third graders, and lessons meant marking and marking comes straight to my desk. I also was needed to give interview practice to students who are applying for international courses at top high schools.
Once I got over the initial frustration of the miscommunication between my colleagues and myself, I found out I was only needed at school for just three hours on the 25th and the 26th. The ALT contract states that we have 12 days of nenkyu (bookable days off). This doesn’t sound like a lot, but we also get the generous 15 national holidays of Japan. Like the JET Programme says, ”Every situation is different” and it is up to the school whether they give an ALT time-off during the vacation. I didn’t complain too much as I knew other ALTs who had to spend all day at work during the vacation, so I counted myself lucky.
It is a coincidence that one of those public holidays, The Emperor’s Birthday, is on December 23rd, which being a Sunday this year, meant Japan had a national holiday on the Monday 24th. Therefore I had the pleasure of spending this day with my host family. The children were full of excitement to see me, especially as I’d come laden with gifts! I’d also brought the Wii game console, that my predecessor left me, so the kids could play with it at Christmas. In just 30 minutes they’d set it up and were playing Wii Sport’s Resort, they were loving it!
In the meantime, the oldest daughter and I made gingerbread cookies. For dinner we had takoyaki (pancake-like dumplings with octopus inside), pizza and a fantastic cake with strawberries on it (a customary fruit at Christmas). After much talking, present giving and cooking it was time for me to leave. There was no way I could take the Wii back, seeming as I haven’t used it once since I arrived in Japan, and these children were having such a great time with it. But, I pretended I was going to take it back and the children’s faces dropped. They pleaded with me, ”Just a little more time, please” but I shook my head and said ”Gomen ne. Tanoshikatta desu ka?” (Sorry. But it was fun, right?). I can be so mean when I want to be!
Just before I left, I told them the good news, that they can keep the Wii! The children nearly burst with excitement and nearly went as far as to give me a hug, but their smiles said it all. The parents were happy too, as all day the three children had played amicable together. I went home feeling so lucky I could re-gift the Wii to a good home.
In my own tradition I’d opened presents from my family on Christmas Eve, so I didn’t have the usual stocking-opening excitement on Christmas morning. I received boxes of chocolates, Christmas puddings and biscuits, all making me nostalgic for the Christmas I usually celebrate. It also made me realise the copious amounts of calories consumed during a Western Christmas! I was glad I wouldn’t have too many pounds to burn in January.
Instead of present-giving and a cold Christmas Day walk, I was to be going into work like the rest of Japan. I thought I’d dress Christmassy for the students and wore a red, pleated skirt and a santa’s hat. I was welcomed with ‘‘Meccha kawai!” (So cute!) from students who were tirelessly practising for a band concert the next day. The teachers were much more relaxed than usual and were chatting amongst themselves in the staff room. It wasn’t a special day for them but still they wished me ”Merry Christmas” as I left after my work was done.
In Japan, Christmas is celebrated in the commercial sense but there is nothing at all about Christianity. There are Christmas lights, Christmas decorations and cheesy Christmas songs, but all of this build up is for nothing! Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are popular times for couples to go on dates or for friends to get together but it can easily go unnoticed as it is not a national holiday. The most peculiar thing I found, was how quickly Christmas decorations were taken down; even on the 25th I saw people taking down their decorations! This is probably because the build up for the biggest Japanese festival, celebrations of the New Year, must begin.
I celebrated Christmas by throwing a potluck party with the remaining ALTs left in the Echizen area. Everyone bought something to share and we managed to create quite a spread of food; rotisserie chicken and sausage from the Brazilian meat shop, pumpkin mash, veg and of course, some deep fried chicken.