Saturday, November 27, 2010

another GRE rant

I hate math.  I hate it because it doesn't get easier as you learn more about it.  It gets harder.  Some things, like art and writing, get harder as you learn more about them, but it is more rewarding to create something than it is to solve a problem that has no real meaning.

Math gets so strange and abstract as you learn it that eventually, you aren't even dealing with real numbers any more.  You're dealing with imaginary numbers.  What the hell does an imaginary number have to do with my life?  Luckily, none of that is going to be on the GRE.  The GRE Math Section will involve arithmetic, algebra and geometry.  I've been plodding through the math review of my study book, starting with basic arithmetic.

I know that my score on the math section won't matter at all when I apply to MFA programs, but I really don't want to bomb it.  I actually enjoyed reviewing math at first.  Basic arithmetic, like percentages and ratios, is pretty useful to know.  It felt good to be learning math again.  I don't mind word problems or equations that make me use the logical part of my brain.

But then I got to geometry.  I hate geometry. It isn't so bad when dealing with rectangles and even pentagons, but I loathe triangles and circles and various quadrilaterals now. I remember that in my high school geometry classes, the teachers realized how ridiculous the formulas for area became, so they mercifully let us have a cheat sheet for the tests.  Not so with the GRE.

The makers of the GRE expect us to have all these crazy formulas memorized, like it's natural for people to just know how to find the area of an isosceles triangle and the sector of a circle.

I was only required to take one math class for my degree: college algebra.  Even that was a struggle for me. I don't even want to tell you what I had to do to pass that final exam.  But I did it, and I brought my grade up from a D to a B.  If there is one thing math classes have taught me through the years, it's that miracles are possible.

I'm not expecting miracles for the GRE Math Section, however.  In addition to not being allowed to have a cheat sheet, I will not even be given the luxury of a basic calculator.  Do you know how easy it is to make tiny mistakes when doing long division and multiplication?  I'm sure you do.  That's why you use a calculator.  My study book assures me that the GRE does not require me to do tedious arithmetic, but the only way to avoid that arithmetic is to memorize really crazy shortcuts that don't make sense to my poor, illogical brain.

I'm spending this overcast Sunday trying to work through the rest of the math section in my study book. Then I'll finish the practice questions on my PowerPrep software and see how much I still don't know.

I took a full practice test the other day, and my score has gotten significantly better than it was when I first took the diagnostic test over a month ago.  I have 7 days until I take the actual GRE.  I guess I should abandon this math stuff and just cram as much vocabulary as I possibly can, but that would be too logical.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I wrote a travel essay for YoMoYaMa Magazine, a free publication put out by the JET Program. You can read it here.  You have to flip through the virtual pages.  It`s on pages 8-10.

I wish I had revised it more.  Reading it now makes me cringe.  It has some good things, but I can tell that I should have spent more time on it.  At least it was a learning experience.  I`m disappointed with how the formatting came out.  It also lists my name as "Emily hayes," which makes no sense.  I probably won`t be submitting to YoMoYaMa again.  It`s not a bad publication, and the people who put it out are really busy and hardworking, but I really need to be compiling things for a portfolio and resume right now. I don`t have time for stuff like that. 

In other news, I`m almost done with a short story!  I got some good feedback from my online writers` workshop and am feeling motivated.  It`s a good day.

Monday, November 22, 2010


A couple of weeks ago, Zack and I were able to see a kabuki play in Ina, a city about an hour away from where we live.  We met up with some people that we met last year in that area and went to the tiny theater.  It wasn't considered "real" kabuki, according to the English-speaking Japanese people that we sat with, because it didn't have the insanely expensive costumes and elaborate sets that the top-end shows in Tokyo have.

I really didn't know what was going on, but I enjoyed myself.  Most Japanese people can't understand kabuki either.  It's sort of like their equivalent of a Shakespearean play: the language is so archaic that it's easy to get confused without some sort of plot synopsis in front of you (unless you're already familiar with the play).  The shows in Tokyo have headphones that tell you about the scenes in modern Japanese.

Kabuki traditionally features an all-male cast, but this troupe had a little girl on stage, too.
Apparently, the little girl and her mother were left outside in the snow near a little house.

There were gods and old people living in the house.

These gods appear to be upset about something...I have no idea what.

The whole cast.

I find traditional theater fascinating. We saw a Legong dance in Bali, and even though I didn't really understand it either, I could still appreciate it. It's one aspect of the artistic part of a culture. One thing that Japan does right is keep its ancient traditions alive, even in the face of modernization and westernization.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The baby upstairs has been especially upset this week.  Maybe he is crying for the people of Haiti.  Maybe he is angry and confused about the fact that Sarah Palin has a reality TV show. 

But I think he is probably plotting against me.  Just like the neighbor beside us, who turns on his car at least 30 minutes before he has to leave each morning.  The car is parked right outside of the glass door of our bedroom.  And the baby`s parents are in on it, too. They feel it is their duty to move furniture around at 11 each night. 

I slept better last night than I have lately, but it still isn`t that peaceful, restful sleep that I hear so much about.  Chamomile tea can only do so much to soothe me when my ultimate enemy is my brain.  I just can`t seem to turn it off.  It`s like a TV constantly playing that can never be unplugged. 

Maybe I should look into meditation.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

things that are good

I want to do a picture post soon. Autumn has been beautiful so far. The tallest mountains are already covered in snow. Zack and I are going hiking this weekend while there are still red and yellow leaves on the trees.

I have great news! One of my former classmates, Alicia, decided to start an online writers` workshop for us graduates who need a little help. I think it will really, really help my writing. Getting feedback and having some sort of deadline is exactly what I need to keep submitting. I like having someone else look over my work before I send it off to an editor. Otherwise, I lose confidence and convince myself that it sucks. I hope that that won`t be any issue any more.

I also started another blog the other day. It`s an extension of my sporadic posts about activism. I want to take this blog seriously. My goal is to try and post in it once a week.

And we were able to go running last night. I  don`t want to give it up just because the marathon is over.  I`m not completely sure when our wedding will be, but I want to be in shape for it.  And for myself. I feel so much better when I exercise.  The sun goes down at about 4:30 in the afternoon, so it`s already dark by the time that I get home.  Zack and I plan on wearing some of those stylish face masks people wear when they`re sick so that our lungs don`t freeze while we run.  We tried to run sans mask the other day, and my throat felt awful.

I`m so excited about it snowing!  One of the teachers said that it might snow by the end of the month.  It will be freezing cold and make the walk to/from work more challenging, but I don`t care.  I find snow infinitely beautiful. 

And...we`re eating sushi and drinking wine tonight.  It`s a good day.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

lost in katakana

This was a weird box that I saw in Tokyo once. Not exactly katakana, but strange English nonetheless.

Part of my job as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) is to be a cultural ambassador. I help them learn more about the land of McDonald`s and Disney. I also help the Japanese English teacher with lessons and activities.

But I have to say that my most important job as an ALT is destroying katakana English whenever possible. I loathe katakana. Learning English is hard for any non-native speaker, but especially so for Japanese people. When they bring English words into their lexicon, they spell the words out phonetically with katakana characters.

Let me back up. Japanese doesn`t use letters to write out words like in English. They use Chinese characters (kanji) to represent sounds or whole words. So "tree" is 木 (pronounced like "key") in Japanese. One symbol, one word (although words are sometimes written with multiple kanji). They also use hiragana to write out sounds that can be stringed together to form words for which there is no kanji; "ki" is きin hiragana.

When foreign words are introduced into Japanese is when things get bad. Really, really bad. Japanese uses 100 syllables to comprise all of their words. English uses hundreds. To borrow a word from another language, the Japanese convert the sounds of the loan word into their closest approximate Japanese sounds.

So some words, like "merry," sound pretty much the same when transitioned into Japanese. Other words, like "stew," become some horrible bastardization of their original selves. "Stew" becomes "shi-chu" (シチュ).

It`s this strange conversion that spurred that whole "Engrish" stereotype. Most Asian languages don`t have an "L" or "R" sound; they have a sound that is somewhere in between the two, so that "river" and "liver" sound identical to them. My name in Japanese is "Em-i-ri" (エミリ). My students constantly write "pray" when they mean "play."

I find myself staring at menus, trying to figure out what the katakana means. I know that the word is English, that I have heard it somewhere, but my brain has to figure out which parts of the word are missing, and which parts have been retained by its katakanization. And then, after 5 minutes, I`ll figure out that the word they meant was "olive oil" (o-ri-bu-o-i-ru).

Since Japanese people are used to having katakana at their disposal to Japanize foreign words, it is difficult for them to hear some of the differences between English words. For example, my students can`t hear the difference between travel and trouble, crab and club, and lady and ready. Today, we were reviewing days of the week with one class, and they couldn`t even hear the difference between Tuesday and Thursday.

Vowel sounds are especially hard for my students. The sounds in "ball" and "bull" are the same to them. I find myself just putting my head in my hands during class sometimes because no matter how many times I say a word, the students just can`t hear all the little sounds in it. "Earth" is "Ah-su" (アース). "Power" has no r at the end; it is "pa-wa" (パーワ)to them.

I think that katakana is a major hindrance to Japanese people wanting to learn other languages. It gives people the impression that pronouncing all words in a Japanese way is okay. But in reality, a native speaker of English--who wasn`t used to Japanese English--would have a really hard time understanding someone speaking katakana English. And, as a foreigner in a foreign land, I find myself getting a little sad at the way the subtleties, the Englishness, of my language just seem to disappear. The way that one thing that is familiar to me becomes unfamiliar. Lost in katakana.