Friday, April 29, 2011

Day 8

Back in my high school days, most of my classmates got really excited about the idea of having a driver’s license. Some of them started going to a driving school as soon as they became eligible, at the age of 18. One classmate, the first one who turned 18 in my class, basked in tremendous respect from all of her classmates except me. I was not into cars but into fashion. My idea of being cool was to look different from others in the most stylish and hip way possible. I idiotically spent most of my tiny allowance on fashion magazines, and dreamed of being one of the world's leading fashion designers, like Yoji Yamamoto or Rei Kawakubo. Passing my driver’s license was not on my list of creative and innovative priorities, especially when I discovered I wasn’t going to be the first. Being as arrogant and ignorant as hell, young Chico believed she was the one who sets the trend for the whole school.  This ridiculous notion, however, was shattered as soon as I enrolled at a technical college, where many of world-class top designers studied, in the heart of Tokyo. I realized I was just a tiny tadpole in a huge pond. The reality made me feel humbled and relaxed, and encouraged me to make the best of my little world.

It was just after I graduated to the status of single mum,that getting a driver’s license and my own car really caught my attention. My daughter was a relatively healthy child yet visits to the hospital became an almost weekly routine. The fragile body of a baby requires regular visits to the hospital and sometimes emergency visits in the middle of the nights. Although I have the most supportive family, I had to deal with my baby’s physical condition on my own most of the time and I decided that a car would be the most convenient tool to have.
So, as soon as she started attending a public nursery school, I started attending a driver’s school and got myself a license within a couple of months, without failing any tests at all. Considering my clumsy and totally wild driving technique, my impulsive personality and my pathological reactions towards the absolutely disgusting attitudes of my instructors, getting this official authority for driving was a minor miracle.

This little miracle story leads me to discuss this question:
Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having a car.

In our modern life style, especially in urban areas, having a car is not a high priority anymore for we have public transport such as trains and buses. However, there are certain circumstances where having a car can make life a lot easier. Therefore, it seems crucial to concideri both the advantages and disadvantages before buying a car.

The main advantage of having car is the freedom it gives to travel anywhere at any time. In the case of a single mother like myself, having a car saved me a lot of time and extra stress for it enabled me to take my daughter to the hospital without having to wait for an ambulance. Under certain circumstances, such as emergency calls from school after a serious accident, a car is the fastest and easiest means of transport.

Moreover, a car can provide a comfortable and private space on the way to your destination. It is a mobile living room as well as a temporary accommodation, with its own air-conditioning, radio and CD players. One can dine, put on make-up, dress, take a rest or even stay overnight in an emergency. Receiving up-to-date news from a car radio can prove handy in a crisis as well.

On the other hand, the air pollution caused by automobile emissions has become a serious concern. Not only environmentally, but also physically as well as psychologically, using public transport, bicycles or even our own feet are much healthier than driving a car if only because they avoid all the stress of traffic jams. During the rush hours, the imposed intimacy of a traveling in crowded train seems less stressful than the anxiety of being stuck in traffic. These alternate forms of transport are also much easier on the family budget, since there are no taxes directly associated with them. In Japan, the official inspection fee for cars is quite steep and maintenance costs can be a considerable burden to our lives.

In conclusion, owning a car can lead to an easier life, especially at critical times, but choosing alternatives, such as public transport, bicycles or walking is wiser in the long term since these alternatives lead to a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 7

I’ve just had a peaceful and lovely weekend outside of Tokyo, leaving behind all the noise in my poor head. The town was deadly quiet. Even at the heart of the city, all stores are closed by 8ish except some bars and karaoke joints. No seductive excitement in evidence anywhere. It seems even young stars stay home, except the wildest ones, and do whatever they feel like. I’m quite sure their interests are not so different from that of teenagers in Tokyo, though. Like everywhere else, their ultimate goal is to be the definitive local color of cool.
One of my friends is from Ehime prefecture, one of four prefectures, located on the smallest and least populated island in Japan. I was astonished to discover the sub-cultural differences when we talked about our “young and stupid” teenage era. I had always thought of myself as one of the wildest and stupidest of all in one of the most conservative private girls' schools in Japan. After exchanging our reminiscences of our high school days, I realized I had actually been a relatively decent girl. Most of his stories were about quite life-threatening situations. At the age of 12, he was addicted to smoking and heavy drinking with his gang. I was totally shocked to learn this,  as the thought of smoking, taking other drugs or drinking had never occurred to me at the stage of my life. The adrenaline  that I had rushing though my system was thrilling enough to deal with, I suppose. It was only much later, in my high-teen era, that I was tempted to smoke just to attain the cool image of being a female smoker. Intrigued, I asked him the reason for his addiction. He said, “ Trying to be cool is one thing and bored is another.” Another friend from Prince Edward Island, in Canada, which lacks the crazy excitements of city life but where alluring nature still remains, also made a similar comment once.
Those experiences led me to this question today:
In a recent survey conducted in this country, it was found that up to 20% of twelve year-olds in some schools were showing early signs of nicotine addiction.
In the eighteen to twenty year age bracket the percentage was as high as 70%. A large contributing factor to this high level of addiction is attributed to the uncensored TV advertising of cigarettes.
For this reason all cigarette advertising should be banned.
People tend to seek a reason for an issue. The main reason for this attempt is for our own peace of minds, I believe. Having a clear reason makes you feel better, or at least less confused. Perhaps having no concrete reason is disconcerting. Parents and teachers ask badly-behaved teens the reason for their rebellious and self-destructive attitudes. However, even if the teenagers understood the forces that drive them, would that knowledge help them to control their lives any better? Nobody feels secure and blissful in a chaotic environment. Simply because they have no idea what is going on inside their heads and bodies, they feel confused and distressed. The uncontrollable aspects of life are intimidating and fearful for their pre-mature hearts. 
I personally have experienced this mysterious magnetic force of rebelliousness, with an overwhelming fear for the uncertainty of the future. Since I had been a rather quiet and obedient little girl in my childhood, my dismayed parents asked me the reason for my excessively unfriendly attitude. If I had known the answer back then, I would have made this list for them:
1 Rapid and radical mental and physical change
2 Peer-pressure for being cool
3 Stress for being excellent academically 
4 Excessive energy as well as irritation
5 Insecurity for the unknown future
6 Loss of childhood innocence
7 Discovery of the absurdity of the world 
Considering all the aspects listed above, it would be strange or even worrisome if teenagers all handled their adolescence in an obedient manner. Those who don’t become rebellious are likely to be either exceptionally mature-minded or apathetic to life. The latter is the more likely the reason and apathy is more problematic than disobedience. In other words, rebelliousness in teenagers should be considered a healthy symptom of personal development. All of us go through the stage in order to mature our minds and souls. Without the inner chaos, full of philosophical questions, dealing with absurdity of life in adulthood would be unbearable. 
The excessive amount of information we receive from multi-media might  be an additional source of confusion for the pre-mature minds of teens. It can also, however, stimulate their rational minds, providing an opportunity to view the world critically, given the appropriate guidance. Banning cigarette advertisements will lead to total control of their minds. It is the same censorship mentality as banning books. In an overprotected environment, freedom of thought will be banned as well. No individual thinker can be nurtured under such control. 
In conclusion, far from banning cigarette advertisements, we could use them as opportunities for open discussion and research on social issues such as teenage addictions.  

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Day 6

Just a year before the new millennium started, my daughter, Momo, launched into the world. She was one of the miracles that has happened to me because I was told that I had a small chance of having a baby when I had a major operation for the second time at the age of 21. The news made me a little disappointed since I love little ones but my easy-going nature didn’t take it seriously.

Perhaps happy-go-lucky is the best policy. After only two years of marriage, I was blessed with an unexpected gift. Although it took me 24 long and extremely painful hours to give birth to her, the blissfulness of having a new life enabled me to get through. The moment I held her in my arms, I was filled with “love and lights”, to use the new age term. I am not an exceptionally spiritual person but I can’t find any word but “spiritual” to describe the moment. It converted me into a steadfast believer of “Every life is precious.”

Except for some of women who suffer from critical mental problems, new parents usually expect from their children nothing but happiness at their birth. The chores of feeding every two hours, changing diapers, daily outing, bathing, nurturing and sacrificing are a tiny price to pay for the unconditional love they feel. The most beautiful and adorable face of their baby is the reward for their hard work. In my daughter’s babyhood, I wished for nothing but her health and happiness. 

In spite of the unconditional love I still feel inside towards my daughter, things have become trickier and more complicated as my expectations  for her grow. I wonder: 'Exactly when did I start expecting “the best” for her without knowing what exactly “the best” for her should be?'. Who really knows what is the best for themsellf ? I don’t even really know what is best for me. Only I know is what I want to do or what I think it is the best for me. Then how come I, as a mum, started acting like I “know” the best life for my daughter. It is really bizarre tendency of parents that majority of us think “My child can do better.” I often felt it and even uttered that as if I knew what was really “better”.
Going back to a Japanese university, however, gave me a little more critical objectivity towards my behavior as a mum.

Having said that, the most appropriate writing task for today is:
In some countries young people have little leisure time and are under a lot of pressure to work hard in their studies.What do you think are the causes of this?What solutions can you suggest?

In 1995, I was studying Early Childhood Education at Seattle Central Community College.  This gave me the chance to compare my own  Japanese culture with U.S culture, both through my own first-hand impressions and through stories I heard. In my country, and particularly in Tokyo where I grew up and currently live, the pressure on children to work hard in their studies is incredibly high, compared to children in Seattle. Several reasons can be listed: the lack of rich natural resources, the prevailing philosophy, the educational system and the decreasing number of children.

Manpower is the one of major resources in Japan due to the lack of sufficient natural resources. We must rely on other countries for essentials, such as food and petrol for maintaining the current level of civilization. This encourages us to believe in hard-work in general. The majority of Japanese are apt to consider industriousness as one of our virtues and take pride in our reputation as hard workers. Consequently, children are expected to do their job as hard as possible. Sending their children to prestigious schools has become a major concern for parents. Entrance exam add higher pressure and more severer competition to the Japanese education system.

Ironically, the decreasing number of children spurs the competition to get into prestigious schools. Having fewer children per household enables parents to invest more money and time in each child. The more they invest, the higher their expectations become. This vicious circle is the cause of the high pressure on children.

Generally, doing the best you can is a good policy. No one would deny this. However, it is said that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Having taught children aged from 3 to 18 for more than a decade, I have noticed that the majority of children suffer from the loss of their intellectual curiosity due to the overbearing pressure to get high scores in tests.

The total loss of intellectual curiosity of children will create the apathy for  the rest of their lives. Without vitality, children will be uncreative and dull, showing no interests in any subjects. They risk becoming obedient yet blind followers of orders, taking no responsibilities for their own lives. Without innovative minds, how can a nation like Japan, that relies on human resources, survive? The danger is that this nation become nothing more than the puppet of more aggressive and powerful nations. The focus of education should be reconsidered and reformed radically. It should be shifted from insisting on high scores in tests to inspiring intellectual curiosity. Educators and educational facilities must revolutionize the current misconceptions that education should merely focus on test-taking. Otherwise, the majority of parents and educators will succeed only in raising a generation of dull Jacks with a total apathy for life.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Day 5

Spring is the most emotional season of the year since it's when the new school year starts and I need to deal with some changes in my classes. Welcoming new faces is always exciting but saying good-bye to old faces is just painful. It has been nearly two decades since I started this profession, however, I have never got used to saying good-bye to anyone. Having my daughter’s birthday as well as memorial days for my grandparents also adds much stronger sentiments to the season. This gloomy emotion has been an excuse for my lack of motivation for the IELTS challenge lately.

This morning, after most of my best friends had gone back to their jobs, I wandered around the online world with no motivation to do any work. Luckily, I got the chance to have a nice chat with one of my friends, whom I highly respect, on one of my favorite social utilities, Facebook. I may have a dull mind but I am blessed with a sharp instinct and it told me to go ahead and grab this opportunity. After exchanging the routine morning greetings, I asked how his study of Japanese is going. He said he’s been learning 20 new Chinese characters a day. This is quite a high goal to achieve for a busy and fancy university English teacher like him. So, I asked him what his secret for motivating himself is. His advice was: “Stop trying but just do it.”

So, here I am following these words of wisdom with reasonable motivation.

Today’s writing task is:
As mass communication and transport continue to grow, societies are becoming more and more alike, leading to a phenomenon known as globalization. Some people fear that globalization will inevitably lead to the total loss of cultural identity.
To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?

The total loss of our cultural identity has been one of the major concerns in my country. Since we have long been a mono-cultural society, paying more honor to our cultural traits than is due, this is understandable. However, true understanding of one's cultural identity cannot be reached without acknowledging the cultural identity of others.

Concrete concepts, such as “solid” and “liquid”, are easy to understand because they are both visible and tangible. How about abstract and subjective concepts such as “good”? Don’t we perceive the concept only in comparison with “bad”? How about “small”? How could we perceive the concept without comparing it to something “big”? Consciously or unconsciously, we grasp ideas of what things are in relative terms. Even the most subjective and abstract concepts, such as love, only become obvious when you lose them. The absence of love or the presence of its opposite emotion, hate, tells you what love is. Without having something else to compare things to, we don’t fully understand anything.

Cultural identity is one of the most abstract concepts. In order to capture such a concept, we must have something to compare it with. For example, group-mindedness is one of the main features of our cultural identity in Japan. We value team work more than individual achievements. Consequently, decision-making takes more time than is necessary. This collective inefficiency is something that I have had to deal with repeatedly in my country. However, it was only after having stayed in the U.S.A. for over a year and having learned its respect for individuality, that I became aware of this cultural characteristic.

Globalization might bring confusion to this mono-cultural country as the result of a lack of understanding for different values. At the same time, it can also introduce a whole range of new values. Acknowledging the cultural identities of others will not only expand our views but also enable us to understand our own culture better in comparison. Thanks to such self-cultural-recognition, solid cultural identity can be recognized.

Therefore, by welcoming globalization rather than rejecting it, we will be able to find opportunities to redefine our own cultural identities.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Day 4

“If you were given the chance, what are the changes you would implement in this 21st century to make our world a better place to live? Discuss a few changes in not less than 250 words.”
The question above is one of writing tasks in IELTS. Since I declared that I’m fully motivated in the previous posts, I’d better stop looking for even more motivation and begin the real practice. Otherwise, I’ll be the most pathetic case: fully motivated and failed. There is no salvation for that.  
My tiny mind craves for big issues "like a pig loves shit”. Please excuse my untameable, anti-Victorian tongue and forgive me for I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to use this expression of Julie Powell's. In her book "Julie and Julia", she wrote: “I love my husband like a pig loves shit.” I was reading the book on the train and had an awfully tough time not to laugh out loud - so tough I had to pinch myself.
It turned out to be a most embarrassing experience in public: some mysterious gooey liquid came out of all the holes in my face. I’ve been distinctly more cautious of the contents of my reading on public transport ever since.
What's that you are muttering under your breath? “Get your bloody point across, mate!”? I’ve heard you. Don’t you know that “Patience is a virtue”? In Othello, Shakespeare, the genius of geniuses, says: “How poor are they that have not patience!” I’d better stop kidding around and get to work before all of you start suspecting that I’m a total loser.
Ok. Here we go.
The change I’d like to implement for the next generation is a change in our mindset concerning all conventional beliefs. What is good or bad, conventional and unconventional, moral and immoral and so on, for it may differ from society to society. It would be better if we acknowledged the differences first and then worked together, hand in hand, to rebuild a new mindset or sets of beliefs based on common ground. Otherwise, international relations everywhere may suffer.
For instance, in my country, the group-oriented mind is extolled as the way to make harmonious society whereas the U.S.A. emphasizes individuality more. There is no perfect ideology. Japan has succeeded  in making one of the safest countries in the world, but the cost has been the loss of the critical and individual mind in order to over-promote a group-oriented attitude. We are taught to be cooperative and humble as soon as we enter nursery school. Order and harmony are more important than creativity and unique individuality. These complementary values must be integrated somehow. All of us can find an unique harmony in society if each individual is respected because of his or her uniqueness.
Although it may look impossible or seem like a long way to go yet, we won’t be able to survive without such a radical mind revolution. I don’t think I’m paranoid or exaggerating the risk of extinction of the human race, considering the environmental problems we face today. In fact, it is always our minds that have provoked the necessary changes; it is not at all unrealistic to consider the need for a radical change in mindset. 
Perhaps walking backwards or going upside down from time to time is not such a ridiculous way to behave in order to break the mould

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Day 3

In Japan, people consider a baby as a treasure, something absolutely priceless. You treat a baby as if s/he is one of the deities. One of the biggest hit songs in the latest Japanese pop music scene is called “A God of the Toilet.” Which shows that there are so many gods and so many beliefs inherited by this culture that they make the nation feel less arrogant if not humbled.

A baby is one of the most troublesome and demanding gods of all, having two contrasting faces: Devil and Angel. She demands from you your full attention, absolute calmness and patience while she puts you on the most thrilling roller coaster ride of your life. You’ve got to learn to be Zen about all the sentiments emerged from your mind in the brand-new role, mom. Otherwise, the god will drive you absolutely crazy and make your motherhood miserable, despite of its inspiring potential.

Early motherhood was the most challenging yet the most wonderful stage in my entire life. Can you imagine holding a god in your arms and being obliged to be at her non-stop service, 24 hours of devoted duty every single day? Especially, this god that sent to me was one of the fussiest ones of all with excessive sensitivity to all my senses. Every single emotion I felt was conveyed directly to her and she screamed with displeasure if it was something negative like a bit of anger, stress or irritation from the extreme fatigue caused by so many sleepless nights. When she sensed any of them, she would cry out “ I don’t care at all what you feel right now. Come on! Make my day!” And I would try out every single solution I could possible come up with. And if none of them worked, I would walk around the house helplessly, with my eyes full of tears and great beads of sweat on my brow,  cradling the screaming god in my arms till she got tired of teaching me. What a lesson! I had to master the art of being, constantly loving and calm. Of course, I was the worst student in the field since “emotionally confused” is my trademark. She has never given me an A+ and still constantly offers me lessons on motherhood.

She doesn’t complain about the quality of my service or her nappies anymore. She doesn’t wake up, screaming her head off every two hours at night anymore. Yet she doesn’t offer me the miraculous bliss I felt as I fed her in my arms anymore, either. Instead of the god-like, perfectly beautiful smile, she has started throwing philosophical questions at me with the most intimidating look on her face. She often inflicts her philosophizing practices on me at the breakfast table. I hope I would receive some merciful pity from some of you if you could only imagine the scene: a mom in her 40’s with a hysterically busy schedule for the day, still in her PJs, with creatively messy hair and sleepy eyes, holding a mug of espresso from which she is sipping in an attempt to convince her aging body and brain to come up with a reasonably satisfying breakfast for her daughter. Those, who possess tender hearts, must be shedding a tear by now.

On the first day of the school, the day of her entrance ceremony, in one of  her best dresses, she suddenly fell silent at the breakfast table and threw out the questions: “What is life, mom? What’s the point of it?” These are not  totally innocent and adorable reflections of a first grader, are they? These big questions only occurred to me when I was in my early 20s, for god’s sake. How am I supposed to admit that it took this girl only 6 years of intense observation of grown-ups to come up with them? How is it possible to maintain the dignity of motherhood when faced with this little philosopher? On the spot, I got a really bad feeling that she would rock some of teachers’ worlds so badly that they would give her a hard time at school. At that time, I thought I had learned to put my ego aside and become as sincere as possible with her, as a “perfectly imperfect being”, to use her term. But it was quite tough to keep myself together and not scream some vicious lines hysterically. I held my breath for a while and managed to say, “Brilliant questions, girl.” And guess what she said! No it is unimaginable. She went, “You just don’t know, do you?” with one of the most daunting eye rolls on the planet. It is certainly not the most loving treatment for a mom who feels high on the anticipation of her daughter’s infinite possibilities, is it? But she certainly strengthens my capacity to listen beyond words.

This skill has been helpful in my teaching carrier. Because of her, I’m more sensitive to the facial expressions and body language of my kids. I have nearly 40 of them. They are not my biological children but they are all dear subjects of my affection. Together we explore the universe of our minds through learning English. Our little shack, the space that facilitates our shared learning process, has unexpectedly become a hideout for every one of us. And the moments I have the great fortune to share with them have been my main source of income and,of the air for my lungs. In other words: a source of life full of spontaneity and laughter. Providing an everlasting fun tour of the wonderland of English to the loveliest, the most intriguing, the most adorable and yet the most critical gods, children, is also one of my main motivations to becoming an M.A. Mama.

I’ve already announced to them all, including the most severe one, my biological daughter, that I plan to climb to the top of the hill of academia and report back to them on what the world looks like from there. Considering their reaction - a concert of eye rolls and L signs on their foreheads - I have no choice now but to just do it, haven’t I?