I never travel without my diary.

One should always have something sensational to read on the train.

(no subject)
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
JAPAN stuff is now moved to WordPress.
I'll be keeping this comm for various other travel experiences, since I travel a lot anyway :3

Opening/Entrance Ceremonies
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
Well, I'm in Japan. My work schedule for Friday simply said 'Opening ceremony' 'lunch' and 'Entrance ceremony', so I was expecting anything from a school assembly period (20 minutes or so) to the ceremonies lasting all day. (Thankfully, they didn't.)

Opening Ceremony
Held in the morning for returning students. Much like a long school assembly, where new teachers (including myself) were introduced and gave a short speech, the headmaster have a speech, the vice-head gave a speech, the school song was sung and generally everyone was a bit bored. It lasted just under an hour, and the students spent most of it kneeling.

Then they spent a tiny amount of time rehearsing for the Entrance Ceremony, during which I saw a teacher cross to a student whose trousers were evidently hanging too low. He reached over, flipped up the back of the boy's blazer, and then just grabbed his trousers around the hips and yanked them up. I and one of the other new teachers burst into giggles at the back, where no one could see us, haha. It did strike me as very different though; obviously, in England, no teacher would go around pulling student's trousers up. >___>

After the Opening Ceremony, the third year students got the gym ready for the Entrance Ceremony, which was a lot more grand - red and white curtain/streamers, a wooden stage, and the entire floor, which had been quickly carpeted for the Opening Ceremony, swept. Chairs were set out in disturbingly accurate fashion, with tape measures and all to make sure that they were exactly the same distance apart...

Entrance Ceremony
Students at the front, parents behind them, teachers on the side, dignataries on the other side. The new first years were waiting outside the gym, and the whole thing started off in absolute silence. Then... 'Spring' blared out from some speakers. The first years walked in, boys on the right and girls on the left in a pair. They were perfectly timed to finish right as the music did and I actually almost started laughing again; it felt like a wedding! All the parents were taking pictures of their kids and everything.

Then came another hour and a half of speeches. The routine for the speeches were done in letter format - everyone came up with a letter to the audience and read it aloud. They would congratulate the first years (who all bowed), congratulate the parents (who all bowed), talking about SPRING and YOUTH and SEISHUN-ness in general, bow to the dignataries, the teachers, and the parents. The principal gave a speech, the head of the board of education for the area, the school governers' head, the head of the PTA, the head... parent...? Someone on behalf of the parents present, anyway. Also the third year representative (who was a TINY boy) gave a short speech to his new kouhai, and also the new (probably elected less than half an hour ago) first year representative (who was an even TINIER boy, haha) gave a speech thanking all the other speeches and talking about how they would try their best.

This was all in a rather cold gym (half of the audience kept sniffling), and the students' chairs were placed far apart enough that they couldn't lean over and whisper without being really obvious. Also, Japanese kids are very good at being silent anyway. You couldn't have got my class to sit for an hour and a half without talking at all. They're also very good at falling asleep whilst sitting perfectly straight.

After this, and the reception for the parents (tea. Lots of tea), the third years came back in to help tidy away. I pitched in, because the students did everything from roll the carpets up, sweep, take down the decorations and move the stage. There is no health and safety in Japan; I was honestly scared the small kids were going to drop something, and because we were in the gym, we obviously didn't even have shoes on for protection! ;____;

Anyway, to conclude: ceremonies are long - stock up on caffeine. Also, I was reeeeally regretting wearing a skirt with tights, not only because it was bloody cold, but also because when I was helping to clear stuff away, there was a lot of kneeling around and sliding on my knees which destrooooyed the tights. Whoops!

Maids
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
Where I live in the UK, if you have a maid... you're rich. >___> People just generally don't have maids. However, in Hong Kong, you might reasonable have a maid if you're middle class. Middle-class parents generally have the long working hours I've mentioned before, so there's no one around to look after the kids unless you rope nana into doing it.

Maids in Hong Kong used to all be from the Philippines, although they are now increasingly from Indonesia. Generally, they're employed by an agent, who screens and trains them and then hires them out. They live in-house, sort of like a domestic helper and au pair all in one, and generally take over the shopping, cooking and looking after the kids. Some of the kids see their maid more often than they see their parents; my friend's mother actually fired their last maid because she got jealous of the fact that my friend was closer to their maid than her.

The effect on kids (and adults too) is that many of them who grew up having a maid never learn to do things for themselves. It always makes me think twice about it when I realise that some of the people I know have no idea how to use a washing machine or how even the microwave works. I know kids who don't know how to dry their own hair or tie shoelaces by the age of ten, and adults who call their maids in from the other room to pass them things from five feet away.

Maids generally live in a tiny room, sometimes next to the children if they're small. A lot of the time, they're in Hong Kong because it's a freer place with better job opportunities and they're sending money overseas home to help support family, but they've started to gain a reputation for stealing, getting into debt and gambling.

To me, having a maid is still something I associate with the rich, and every time I visit someone who has one, I try and be polite and thank them when they pass me things and try to trouble them as little as possible. It's a little disparaging when the host starts ordering them all over the place and then taking the credit though...

Interac: Applying, part two
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
Part two: Placement process

1.* COEs. To get into Japan, you need a work visa and a Certificate of Eligibility. The COE is basically proof that you have a job so you can get the work visa. Around the end of December, Interac will start applying for them. They take 6-8 weeks. Why not earlier, since I got my Interac offer at the end of October, you ask? Because the COE and visa are only valid for three months each. If you get it too early, you won't have any leeway should there be problems.

2.* J-CAT. If you indicated that you had a basic or above level of Japanese in the interview, you get to take the J-CAT. It's an online test involving listening, reading and comprehension. It doesn't affect placement, so it doesn't really matter. But, if you get above Intermediate on the J-CAT you will also have a phone interview. If you pass that, there is the possibility of an extra 5000yen/month in your salary. (I took the J-CAT, but not the phone interview. Interested to see how much my Japanese ability goes up in a year!)

3.* Online resume. Again? This is the third time I've put in a resume! One on the online application, one forwarded in email with the last batch of paperwork and now another?! Yes. This one goes to a translator, who then passes it to your schools so they know what you're like. Again, it doesn't matter for placement.

4. TB test. This info actually got sent out near the beginning, but Interac requires everyone to get a TB test (mantoux skin test or x-ray) before arriving in Japan (and for it to be negative, obviously). Proof of having had the BC vaccine as a child is not enough. I've heard that travel clinics are the cheapest, unless you can persuade the NHS/your health insurance to do it for free. (I got an x-ray done for about £18, but other people's prices seem to range from £25-£70.)

5. Waiting. Placements can take until the end of February to come through. Sure it's annoying since you leave your home country at the end of March and it would be nice to know where you're going for the next year, and flights are steadily getting more expensive, but that's how it works. Every minute someone spends phoning up the Head Office to worry about is one less minute they could be spending actually working on it. Deal with it.

6. Placement! So they phone you up finally! The country code is +81 by the way. They will tell you where your placement is (Mitoyo), what branch you are under (Hiroshima), the type of work (Elementary and Jnr High schools) and the kind of placement (non-/driving). Take this time to ask the millions of questions you undoubtedly have. They will send you an email with details: you have 24 hours to confirm or decline the place. If you decline the place, you basically go back to square one - they throw you in the pool and have to place you all over again.

7. Visa and flight. You can apply for the visa as soon as you have the COE. Takes between 3 - 7 working days. In the US, you can post it apparently. In the UK, you have to apply in person. It may or may not cost you a bit. They may ask for an itinerary. (You don't need to have booked a flight for a hypothetical itinerary.) Wait on your flight: there are two training venues and flying into the wrong one will cost a lot to get to the right one.

8. Branch contact! Some branches are very quick. Some are plain not. In any case, after you accept your offer, the branch will email with details about training, housing, money, travel, etc. You will need to reply with your itinerary and (for driving positions) copy of driving license and International Driving Permit, which you will need to drive in Japan. The IDP is valid for a year, so try and get it dated for when you arrive in Japan or you will have to get the Japanese driving license before your contract is up.

*You can end up getting your COE, J-CAT test and online resume request both before or after you get your placement, as they don't affect exactly where you are placed
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Interac: Applying, part one
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
Thought I'd give a step-by-step on what the process was - since this is a public blog, maybe it'll help other people. (At the very least, it appeases my frustration that despite there being plenty of information out there, people seem intent on asking the SAME QUESTIONS every year.) Also I don't think I actually ever really told anyone when I was going through this.

Part One: Before Placement
1. I applied. I went on their website, filled in an application. It's quite a long online application form, but there is the option of saving the page and finishing it later before submitting. Applying through either Interac or Teach Away will end up in the same process.

2. Telephone interview. Despite what their email may say, it is not a short phone call 'clarifying a few details' - it is an expansion of the online application. I answered my phone in the morning, about a week after I'd put in the application, half-asleep. I'm surprised I was even coherent. The questions were about 'Why Japan', 'Why teaching' and 'Why kids'. Basically: why are you applying for a job in Japan that involves teaching kids.

3. Seminar.
3.1 Prep: After passing the telephone interview, there was an interview detailing the seminar. It gave some information on the process and asked applicants to prepare several mock-lesson activities that would be videoed and sent to the Japanese main office.
3.2 Morning: There was a grammar test and a personality test. Both were very quick and very easy. (Unless you are truly appalling at grammar, in which case why are you applying for a job teaching English?) The morning was mostly spent as a group, discussing what Interac does, what the job consists of, what Japan is like and culture shock and adaptation. There was another wad of paperwork: a questionnaire about what you wanted from Japan, from Interac and preferences re: age of kids, location, driving, etc.
3.3 The afternoon was actually given mostly to waiting for your turn and chatting with the rest of the group, because then there were the personal interviews (standard job interview) and the videos. A 1-min introduction with a bit of Japanese if you knew it, a 2-min warm-up activity for kids and a 6-min vocab teaching activity on one of three subjects if I remember correctly. They had video examples to show the set-up, so it was easy just to copy.

4. Paperwork! I was notified of my offer from Interac by email. Attached was some more info about the contract, a contract saying that you intended to work for them (NOT the same as the actual work contract!). I had to apply for the CRB (criminal record) check and send in proof of my name, address, NI number and CV. (This was absolute nightmare for me, since I'd just moved and all my bits of proof still had different addresses on.) This is also the time they contact your references, so make sure they're expecting an email.
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Stewing in tv
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
Television in a country, I've often found, reflects somewhat on its people's needs. HK television tends to be very fast-paced, a lot of information and things happening in a short space of time and a lot of drama. This is probably because nothing else can capture the attention of HK people. For people who are often impatient, and expecting something well worth their time, this means that their tv is often incredulous and (I find) ludicrous.

A lot of restuarants and diners have tvs installed in them. HK Chinese, much like Japanese people, are a bit addicted to their dramas. They REALLY HATE missing them. The reason that they can't just record them and then watch them later is mostly because they don't have time -- plus, everything runs in real time in HK, so if you fall behind, IMMEDIATE SOCIAL PARIAH. Big cafes might have two televisions, and restaurants, excluding the dead posh ones that would never do anything so gauche, have one on like every wall, sometimes showing different channels. It means that they can attract people through the primetime slots (8-10pm) by letting them eat at the same time; you don't even have to worry about not being able to hear, because HK tv comes default with subtitles. Nifty, huh? Now that's what I call knowing how to do business.

(The title is from a Chinese phrase 'Stewing tv congee', which is talking about someone who spends a lot of their time keeping up with tv.)

Small spaces
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
I keep getting asked how I'm going to cope, moving from a big UK house to the tiny, cramped Japanese apartments. Firstly, we did not have a big UK house by any stretch of imagination! Secondly, I'm used to living in small spaces. Let me show you our current flat in Hong Kong.

Pictures under the cut!Collapse )

How much is that doggie in the window?
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
I've noticed that Hong Kong people are very blasé about money. I was watching some sort of TV awards ceremony, and the celebs were all gussied up, as normal. In the UK, the day afterwards, websites and newspapers will have articles on what dresses each woman wore and ratings and how to achieve a similar look, speculating on the price and stuff like that. The HK Chinese are much more direct - the introduction with each major celeb on the end of the red carpet included the question 'How much did everything cost?'

I was sat there, my British sensibilities squirming at this. Each celeb would actually point to their jewellery and say how many carats it was, how much it cost, then repeat with the dress and shoes. 'Yeah, I'm wearing over a million HKD worth of diamonds on my ring.' CRINGEEEEE. But something that completely fascinates the Hong Kong audience.

Work Ethics (or, everybody keeps lawyer hours)
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
In Hong Kong, normal working hours are supposedly 9-5. In reality, 9-7 is normal. 9-10 or 11 later is pretty standard too. OT is common. I just had a family dinner, and one of my cousins arrived at 8:30pm, because she was at work. On a Saturday. She has an office job.

In my head, people who keep those sorts of hours are lawyers or businessmen. In Hong Kong, it's everyone. Try going out for a meal at 6:30, and you will probably get a seat. Try going out for a meal at 9:00 and it will be completely packed, because that's around the time people have managed to get off work. The reason that everyone gets off work later is because overtime (OT) is so common. No one dares to go home earlier than their boss, or be the first person to go home in an office, because then they'd be considered unenthusiastic and slacking. There's also the mentality in the UK that 5:00pm rolls around and you stop whatever you're doing and finish it tomorrow. In HK, it's more task-based: you go home whenever you manage to finish this project, be it 3pm or 9pm (and guess what, it's never 3pm...)

This reflects in how the rest of the place works. Shops are open much, much later. Seeing shops close at 5 or 6pm in Reading always makes me look twice now, because shops are open later even in London. I went shopping at 11am and half the shops were still shut. Go shopping at 8pm, and everything's still open. Everyone seems to fit their schedule around the fact that Hong Kong is a very active place much later at night. Convenient for me, because I'm a night owl. :D

(Of course, the downside is that everyone has sleeping disorders because they're trying to go out and have fun to de-stress instead of sleeping at night after a long day of work.)

Public transport (THE BEST THING EVER)
sparkly kitten
cluelesschase
Hong Kong loooooooves public transport. Because it's a small, cramped place, many people don't use or own cars. Partially because you would have to have somewhere to park it, and partially because congestion is ridiculous. It is not a strange thing to not have your driving license.

The entire place runs on Octopus card (which is like London's Oyster card system, but it actually beeps through faster). The Octopus card is basically a pass that allows you to load money onto it, and beep through underground, buses, minibuses and trains, deducting the right fare each time. As well as public transport, you can use it to pay for stuff like parking and 7/11 shops; the Octopus card is getting increasingly more available in shops. PLUS you can stick it in your purse next to your bank cards and the machine won't throw a fit trying to read it, which happens to the Oyster card.

Since Hong Kong is aaaaall about efficiency, the public transport reflects this. Waiting eight minutes for an underground train is a really long time. Waiting 15 minutes for a bus is tragic. (In the UK, waiting 15 minutes for a bus was a completely reasonable time, often quite short! In HK, I find myself cursing out the public transport system if I'm standing for more than six minutes.) The underground doesn't run through the night, but there are night buses and minibuses that do.

There are markings on the platforms of trains and underground to show you where the doors will open, and the drivers will arrive within inches. At bus stops, there are rails to separate out the different bus numbers and, again, buses will stop at the right rail opening! Unheard of!

And the last thing I'd like to mention is that public transport is cheap. Hence why everyone can use it all the time. In London, a single fare is £2 ($24HKD), even if you only travel for two minutes and down three stops. In Hong Kong, my 45 minute commute across three different islands only cost $12HKD (98p).

In short, Hong Kong public transport beats any other country's public transport system, hands-down. And I've been to a lot of countries.

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