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I wrote before that Twitter was like a magic cafe or an eternal, really good TESOL conference, but it can actually be a lifeline in times of disaster.
When the Tohoku Earthquake hit Japan, I was in California, but I was using Twitter at the time, on my @readable account with a lot of Japanese users. Many of them quickly tweeted 地震だ–”it’s an earthquake.” I realized something was wrong when, even fifteen minutes later, they were tweeting things like まだゆれる–”it’s still shaking.”
For people who were and are in a disaster area and are not totally fluent in the local language, the situation can range from stressful to life-threatening. Even being in the Tokyo area (distant from the tsunami and major quake damage), with aftershocks, confusing power outages, train stoppages, and food shortages, is proving a challenge for many people. People who have made a good effort to learn Japanese are still finding that a whole host of new vocabulary is cropping up–planned power outage, aftershock, evacuation, contamination, nuclear power plant, and so on.
For the first couple of days, information from official sources was hard to get (at least overseas) in English–people kept saying to watch NHK World News, but when I turned it on, it was often just a loop of tsunami warnings, or a loop of translated news that I knew to be many hours old. (I knew the news was old because Twitterers like @makiwi, a food writer, and @TimeOutTokyo, an entertainment magazine site’s account, were tweeting live news in English–read about Six 6 Tokyo Tweeters Who Kept the City Informed here. And while NHK World News was behind, CNN and MSNBC and so on were woefully behind, and just so bad overall that I quit bothering with them. Meanwhile, BBC’s radio announcers mangled Japanese place names so badly that I couldn’t understand where they meant, which was pretty useless. While there was some good mainstream reporting later [caveat], I would not currently rely on these news outlets in a crisis where I needed to make decisions.)
During this time, and even (to a great extent) now, if you wanted to get information about things like the current status of the nuclear plants, who could help with emergency translation (seriously–medical experts were volunteering on the spot!), what all those microsieverts and millisieverts meant, where you could get shelter, how you could get from Point A to Point B with the expressways closed, where get temporary medication refills, which train lines were running, where to buy bread and batteries, how to use Google People Finder to check on survivors, who would take English-speaking volunteers, where to get information on cooking with limited resources, how to extend a visa or replace a passport, and so on, you could find the answers on Twitter. And during the aftermath, many of my Japanese friends say that Twitter has also helped them feel less alone, more reassured, and constantly encouraged, despite the stress and confusion. Some people have criticized Twitter for spreading hoaxes and rumors, but those spread by word of mouth, too (and for, heaven’s sake, even newspapers). Critical thinking, asking questions, and checking with reliable Twitterers all go a long way.
People rapidly came together on Twitter to help each other find information, connect users to other users who could translate something or supply an answer, and otherwise assist each other (even outright offering spare rooms to strangers). I noticed people’s lists of followers exploding, and not just those (like @makiwi and @TimeOutTokyo) who were valiantly translating NHK live and otherwise providing information you couldn’t get anywhere else.
Anyway, I can tell you that if I’d been in Japan, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been without Twitter. At the moment of a crisis, of course, it’s better to head for high ground, get under your desk, or whatever rather than checking Twitter (although at least one person was apparently rescued from a rooftop due to Twitter, since he wasn’t able to make a call but could send a tweet!). After that first moment, though, Twitter’s usefulness really kicks in. Disasters of one kind or another–floods, invasions, earthquakes, wildfires, uprisings–can happen almost anywhere. And despite the way we humans naturally tend to think, you’re not immune to disasters if you’re an outsider who is only there for a year or two: without fully-developed family and social networks, high-level language skills, knowledge of your surroundings, a fully-stocked household, and so on, you are probably more vulnerable.
Of course, you can’t necessarily sit there and wait for information to flow in–you need to either already have a well-developed Twitter network or be willing to seek out and find additional useful people to follow (or both). And you need be adventurous and creative in your use of English and the local language to search Twitter for the information you need (and not hesitate to ask people who might be helpful). Two places to start are 1) my Twitter guide for ESL students (simplified, but suitable for anyone, including people who use Twitter but haven’t explored its various functions–hashtags, for example, became very useful for regional information-sharing), and 2) my Twitter lists. To use Twitter lists, click on the name of the list and then the “Following: ” tab at the top. You can choose to follow individual members, who will show up in your Twitter timeline as usual. Or you can follow the whole list, but the members won’t show up in your timeline unless you also follow them individually. To read tweets from the list, you’ll have to go look at the list in your Twitter app or on Twitter.com.
Anyway, sorry for the length, but I hope this is useful to someone (although I suppose it’s better if it’s not, eh?). If you have any questions, let me know–and take care!
Please consider donating to ongoing relief efforts in Japan. Many people in the northeastern areas still do not have access to sufficient food and other supplies, and those coastal villages were not wealthy to start out with (fishing and farming villages disproportionately inhabited by the elderly). I donated to Second Harvest Japan (also accepting volunteers in Japan). TimeOutTokyo has more suggestions about how people both inside and outside Japan can help, plus things you can buy, including music.
If you’d like to read more about the situation, I recommend the posts at Global Voices. They’ve translated posts from Japan into a variety of different languages (e.g., Onagawa, the Hometown I Once Knew.)
Anyway, thank you for reading this, and take care wherever you are (and remember to prepare for whatever disasters tend to strike your part of the world–even if you’re just living there for a year or two!).
Sorry for the long radio silence here and on Twitter, etc.! I went to a convention over Memorial Day weekend, and when I came back, my place had been broken into. My beloved MacBook Pro was stolen, among other things. I hadn’t backed up as often as I should have, because too much other stuff has been going on recently.
Odds are, if you’re a teacher–and particularly if you’re an edtech fan or writer-type or grad student–you also have valuable information and technology in your place. Here are the lessons that I learned from this experience:
- If you rent your home and own expensive laptops, TVs, jewelry, or other stuff that would cost a lot to replace if damaged or stolen, consider renter’s insurance. It doesn’t cost a lot per year, and it’s made a huge difference for us–replacing two Mac laptops would be an issue for two teachers, otherwise! (Traveller’s has been pretty good, by the way.)
- Get an external hard drive and, if you are not a conscientious frequent updater of it, find an automatic backup solution. I think newer versions of the Mac OS have options for this built in…I didn’t have that and wish I had.
- Anything that’s automatically stored in more than one place is a good thing, so anything that’s automatically synced is a good thing. My address book from my laptop was synced to my iPod Touch, so I didn’t lose friends’ phone numbers and addresses (I just wish I’d filled it out more instead of relying on a file!). My calendar with appointments was, too, and so on. If you don’t have a Touch/iPhone/Blackberry, etc., there are some free online services that do similar things. My bookmarks, which include things that are very important like research articles, teaching activity sites, etc., are intact because I use Delicious.com rather than just saving them in my browser.
- Use an e-mail service that stores your sent mail forever and doesn’t delete it (and can be searched easily, like Gmail). Someday, those sent attachments may be your only record of things like, oh, your most recent CV. (Ack.)
Anyway, without getting into the security side of things, those are just some ideas to keep you rolling/help you bounce back in this situation. I’m sure there’s a lot more out there I could have done.
Ultimately, nobody was hurt, I’m getting a new MacBook Pro, and things could have been a lot worse.
I swear I’m not a cheerleader for Google, but they consistently bring out free products that are of interest to the international community, and they’re often or usually cross-platform. Google Earth is a program that I think everyone should try, especially if you’re curious about other parts of the world, you live overseas, or if you may be moving. (I think most English teachers fall into one or two of those categories!) One note though–a very old computer won’t run it, and I doubt netbooks will either, though I could be wrong.
“Isn’t Google Earth the same as Google Maps?” said a friend, wondering what the point was. No, it’s completely different. Google Earth lets you zip around the planet in a really natural way, the way you may have twirled and spun a globe as a kid. (Although you may feel a bit like Superwoman as you dive toward the roofs of Paris and then glide across Beijing–whee!) Similar to Google Maps, you can also zoom in and view satellite imagery, which I’ve heard has higher resolution in some areas than Google Maps will show, due to some countries’ privacy concerns about Google Maps. (For some reason, maybe due to the lack of directions or its lower popularity, Google Earth is perceived as less of a threat. I don’t know if that’s true.) More importantly, as you zip around, the map lights up with markers for photos, videos, descriptions, restaurant reviews, hotels, convenience stores, volcanoes, parks, World Heritage sites, and whatever other “layers” you’ve turned on. You can see photos of a train station from many angles, a panorama of a lake, and “step into” a spherical photo of a park or a shopping neighborhood that lets you tilt the camera in all directions. There are brief Wikipedia summaries and so on that can be viewed from inside Google Earth, while video links and other links may take you out of the program and into your web browser. It’s a very rich, multi-layered experience that can really help you get to know an area–and yes, there really is extensive coverage for places outside North America. You can get very familiar with neighborhoods in Taipei, Seoul, Hokkaido, Cuzco, and other places in which you may be considering teaching.
Naturally, popular tourist sites have the most info, but Google Earth is widespread enough that there’s information on a lot of places. The more you browse around, the more you see–and it gets updated periodically, so more things will pop up. In addition, there’s user-created info that you can download according to your specific interests, such as these Google Earth bookmarks for Korea from ZenKimchi. There’s a strong Google Earth community working to add interesting stuff all the time–here’s the Google Earth Gallery with just some of the things you can view once you’ve installed Google Earth. I haven’t played with these kinds of extras much though, because I can already spend a lot of time just looking at the photos and such that are included already.
Google Earth also winds up serving as a kind of geographical IMDB–when you’re driving down I-5 and you see some weird dirt formation off the highway, just note the next exit and look up that area on Google Earth when you get home. Chances are good that there’s a photo and a note explaining what you saw.
You can put together tours in Google Earth, which is a feature that has some potential in the classroom; students are sometimes interested in where you’re from, or there may be some other theme you want to present. You can even record audio if you want to get it done in advance. There are existing tours you can download, too.
Some caveats: sometimes Google Earth only has information on a location in the local language. This can still be of use even if you can’t read that language; if you click on a restaurant icon in downtown Kagoshima, you may not be able to read the reviews that pop up, but the URL that shows in the window often includes a romanized version of the name, and about half of the time there’s a photo of a characteristic dish that the restaurant serves. So that’s better than nothing. In addition, Google Earth often doesn’t handle Asian addresses well, I’ve noticed. Sometimes it can go directly to a specific street address in Taiwan, Korea, or Japan, but sometimes you have to try alternate spellings or go up a level or two (to the ward or even the town/city level).
Anyway, there are a lot more features (and there’s also a surprisingly nice free iPod Touch/iPhone app). They also have an Outreach area aimed at nonprofits, for example. Give it a try and see what else you can discover in your neighborhood, old neighborhood (I found where I used to live in Taiwan!), or potential new neighborhood!
Oh, and in case your teacher-brain is percolating, yes, teachers are teaching with Google Earth. Even math teachers are using it! If you’ve used it with English-language learners, please comment and tell me how–I’ve only used it casually, to show individual students where I used to live, in Arkansas, and how different it is from California.
EDIT: Here’s something else useful! Clicking on the little ruler icon lets you create and measure paths, so you can figure out how far it is “as the crow flies” from one point or another–which Google Maps will not let you do–and you can also figure out how far it is, say, on foot from the closest subway station to the school you’re considering working at. Google Maps will calculate walking routes for some cities, but not all, and certainly not worldwide. Although it’s a rough estimate since you can’t necessarily see sidewalks (or the lack thereof), etc., it’s still a potentially handy tool–especially when you can’t travel to check out a location yourself. Just click on the ruler, choose your unit of measure, and start clicking each point (corner/turn) of the route. The distance will be shown in the ruler box.
(By the way, if you’re on a Mac using 10.4, stick with Google Earth 5.0 and disable automatic updating. 5.1 doesn’t run on 10.4 :/)
Especially when living and working overseas, it’s easy to plan to blog and then fail to, whether because of too much pressure or not enough opportunities to get online or an increasing backlog of photos and excursions to write up or too many options when it comes to the actual blog itself.
I think I’ve run across a couple of solutions that would have been really useful to me when I was briefly abroad in Taiwan and even more briefly in Japan; I had a lot of trouble getting organized enough to post even though a lot of people were waiting on me to.
Primarily, Posterous. It’s still under development (and very responsive to suggestions), but it’s great. Here is someone else’s explanation of Posterous. It’s a blog itself, but more importantly, a kind of blog/info management service. Imagine it:
Sicily, 1945 Somewhere in East Asia, mid-afternoon. You’re required to be in the office at your conversation school, but not doing anything in particular. Prep is all done. You have photos on a USB stick, but hopping onto Facebook and your Blogger site and whatnot might not look too good. No problem, if you’ve set up Posterous.
Open an e-mail message to email@example.com, write the subject you want for the post, any text you want in the body, and attach your photos. (I send from Gmail, since it handles attachments so well.) Depending on how you have your Posterous set up, it’ll automatically format and post the photos and text to the services you’ve set up, such as Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, Livejournal, Flickr, and Tumbler, as well as a Posterous page itself (with the URL of yourusername.posterous.com). It’ll even post to Twitter (using the subject line of your e-mail/title of your post up to 130 characters, and then it adds a Posterous shortened url [post.ly], which I presume goes to the Posterous page).
If you only want something to post to specified services, you send your message to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or both (and not everything else) by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your Posterous page itself won’t look fancy; Posterous allows few options in terms of templates, but that’s fine. It’s probably not the main way people will be viewing your content, after all. Here’s a Posterous post and the same post on Tumblr, which I posted to using Posterous. I can’t show you the posts on other services because after the posts appeared, I edited them so that only certain users could see them. (That’s a drawback of Posterous–for services that allow “friends-locked” or password-protected posts, I think you’ll have to quickly edit the post after it appears.)
For when you’re browsing on your own web browser, not at work, there’s a bookmarklet you can put on your bookmark bar so that you can click and post things on Posterous.
Posterous really removes a lot of the barriers to blogging and can streamline the process, I think, so that you can just start posting. And yes, it’s free. (Maybe combine it with Picnik or Pixlr, two simple in-browser image editors.)
You can actually start by e-mailing email@example.com (seriously!) but to really get everything kitted out, you’ll then want to visit the site and register other services you want it to autopost to, choose how the Posterous site itself will look, etc. But this should only take a few minutes.
Oh, and you can attach not just images (.jpg, .png., .gif–all resized automatically, though they can link to the large size if you want), but also .doc, .ppt., .mp3, .avi, and .mpg (plus more). I haven’t experimented with this to see how they display, but Posterous claims they’ll all be handled intelligently.
WHAT YOU CAN’T DO: Format things. If you’re posting from e-mail, you’re not going to be able to put pictures in between text. You can’t change fonts, colors, spacing, etc., with HTML, nor write links any way other than as bare http:// … This is strangely freeing in a way, but if you are a hands-on coding junkie, you will be very dissatisfied. Finally, you can password-protect things on Posterous, but you can’t turn on other sites’ privacy settings from within the Posterous e-mail. (EDIT: Okay, after you post you can, in fact, edit the post that appears on Posterous.com to include HTML and other formatting, but it won’t carry over to other sites. If you can do it before it’s pushed to the other sites, I don’t know how yet.)
Tumblr itself is also fairly simple to use and can cross-post; my feeling is that Posterous is more flexible and I like it more. (Other people vociferously disagree and are huge Tumbler fans, so if you’re intrigued by the notion and don’t click with Posterous, check into Tumblr.) Tumblr doesn’t natively support comments, so it’s cool for presenting a list of images (for example, the Mori Girls Tumblr) but not so great for interaction without some hoop-jumping. If you click on “Comment” on my Tumblr post, since I actually made the post with Posterous, you are taken to Posterous. Some people just like Tumblr more, though, so it’s also worth considering as a solution, and you can add comments if you check into it with Google.
These tools are all potentially excellent for your students too, by the way. As mentioned in the Mashable Posterous Guide, you can make a multi-user Posterous that your students could post to, introducing their community or local restaurants, etc.
If you try it yourself or with your students, let me know how it goes.
(Of course, there’s always the more powerful WordPress.com, the popular Blogger, and various other options, as well as hosting it yourself like I do, but I wanted to mention Posterous as a kind of low-resistance way to just make it happen.)
At The View From Over Here there’s an excellent post on “How to Make the Best of Your Time in Korea” with some great specific advice for people teaching EFL in South Korea. The other writer has kindly agreed to let me borrow her list framework as a springboard for my own general EFL list, but you should go read the original for her perspective even if you’re not going to Korea, I think.
Here are my suggestions based on my experiences traveling and studying abroad, as well as what I’ve learned from friends and colleagues working overseas (or those who’ve come here):
"Korean Washing Machine" by a friend (used with permission)
- Learn at least some of the language! She mentions that even if all you do is learn to read menus, you’ll be a lot happier than your compatriots who didn’t bother. Very true! Start small–learn the writing system. Learn chunks that let you get out and about, like “Is this train going to…?” Use tools: I use an online dictionary for Japanese that includes slang and whole phrases, combined with a plug-in mouseover dictionary, and I can switch to typing in Japanese instantly and easily. As a result, I can go beyond my real abilities to get information I need. Learning about the language’s structure can make teaching English easier, too, since you’ll learn some sources of common errors. P. S. My friend who works in Korea and has the complex washing machine pictured above notes that no, you won’t be able to muddle through with just a dictionary–hers yielded things like “heavenly blessings” and “the geographic features of a mountain” for some of those labels!
- Learn some culture and history. You’ll understand people better and the sights you see will be more interesting (see #8). You don’t have to hit the history books unless you want to–you can watch movies and TV shows, read novels and manga/comic books, read a Culture Shock book or Moon handbook (technically these are travel guides, but they’re heavy on history and culture), etc.
"We got a little over excited" by daedrius (edited, with permission)
- Choose your friends wisely. I thought the other blogger was really smart to point this one out. If you’re looking for a satisfying career experience and you surround yourself with party animals, or you find that you’re inexplicably depressed and somehow don’t notice that you’re hanging out only with Bitter Expats … you need to change things. Don’t be afraid to move on from one group of people to another. People whose goals and activities don’t match with yours can really ruin your EFL experience. So can spending all weekend and all evening in your apartment by yourself because you don’t know anyone. Use Meetup.com, Facebook, etc., if you’re having trouble finding the right people.
- Make friends with the locals! It might be difficult, but try to make friends with local people, and not just through language exchanges (which I haven’t found to work very well). I’ve known people who’ve had good luck joining kimono clubs and martial arts schools, though this seems to work best out in the countryside where they’re too kind/baffled to say no to a nonfluent foreigner. Asking a co-worker to teach you to cook local food might be a good way to get to know them, too. If you have suggestions on how to tackle this one, leave a comment!
"Thoughts" by gad__
- Find the right type of job for you. I know, just having work is good, but you should pay attention to shift times, student age, how much planning there is, how much commuting, etc., before you take a job. You don’t want to not be able to either take care of your students well or enjoy your life. Once you get the job, if it really isn’t a good match for you, you may have to leave. Do so if needed, as gracefully as possible. Make sure you understand your contract, your living arrangements (particularly if they’re tied to your job), and your legal rights in terms of your salary, residency/visa status, etc. Don’t ever let yourself be in the position of fearing to quit because you don’t know what will happen if you do.
"Heiwa elementary school" by ajari
- Do your research about your school. Use Google and bulletin boards to see if you can find out anything specific about the college, conversation school, etc., you’re considering. Some places are really awful, with illegal working conditions; others are simply imperfect; others are fine (remember, complainers are always louder than happy folk, and people’s metrics for acceptability are different). Unfortunately, the more subtle relevant information–like whether a particular school will allow you to use modern, communicative teaching methods–is often virtually impossible to find out on the internet. Contacting a previous instructor is sometimes possible if you’re being recruited or if you’ve gotten an offer, so that may be your best chance.
- Remember, it’s just a job. There are plenty of bad and not-so-great English-teaching positions back home, even for people with MAs (trust me…) and, I assume, for people with PhDs as well. As long as you’re overseas, you’re in a position to do something interesting, so enjoy your free time, travel (catch the train if your town itself is boring), learn the language, attempt to make culturally sensitive changes at your workplace (like the paper I read by a teacher in Japan who started an extensive reading club and eventually got it funded by the school!), find a new job if it’s that bad, or do something to make the most of where you are. Hey, if you’re abroad, I’m already jealous of you!
"Takao Eco Lift" by scion_cho
- Travel! I know people who lived in Japan for a year or more and never looked at a travel guide, because they thought travel guides were only for tourists who were passing through. This is nonsense. Buy the Rough Guide for wherever you’re going. It’s full of information about restaurants, parks, and day trips, plus a lot of relevant cultural and historical notes. Check out Chris in South Korea for inspiration–he goes somewhere new every week! Hit Google and look for bloggers writing about things in your country or even your province. If you’re teaching in Europe or most parts of Asia, you’re well-situated for travel to surrounding countries, too.
"Oh my... rice IS fun!!" by Anjuli
- Eat the food. No, really, just eat it. In Taiwan, some of my classmates were betrayed by Pizza Hut’s squid-corn-mayo pizza once, flipped out, and basically ate at McDonald’s the rest of the time. Naturally, they were miserable compared to the people enjoying Taiwan’s “Western-style” cafes, Taiwanese cuisine, and first-rate international restaurants. When you buy food to eat at home, the blogger at The View From Here mentions that it’s good if you can spend your money at small local markets some of the time, instead of giant supermarkets or department stores. As a bonus, you may be able to get to know the local shop owners, and you may feel more comfortable trying out your language skills on them. Check out the Lonely Planet World Food Guides and similar books if you’re nervous about or unfamiliar with the new place’s cuisine, terms, and customs. Find the balance that works for you–I admit I frequented a certain Taipei hotel’s Sunday brunch buffet so I could get my good cheese hit.
- Try to think of where you are as home. Remember, wherever you go, there you are. Be mindful of that and enjoy it. Make a place for yourself online (by connecting with other bloggers, etc., in your area) and offline (by joining clubs, classes, etc.). I’d advise against cluttering up your place too much if you’ll only be there a year, but don’t go the other way and live in a barracks room. Make yourself comfortable. If you think of where you are as home and not a temporary pass-through, you should be more motivated to make your life a good one. Take care of your health, living environment, mental and social needs, physical and aesthetic comfort, and whatever else you need. Don’t put it off because “it’s just nine more months”–this can go from miserable to dangerous pretty fast.
You may notice that many of these suggestions seem to relate to moving your focus from internal to external. In fact, it reminds me of integrative orientation in terms of language learning. Getting comfortable in a new culture, and not just getting over culture shock but actually learning to live successfully, may have some parallels to successful language learning, so it wouldn’t surprise me if something of an integrative orientation is helpful in this process as well. At any rate, the unhappiest people on certain bulletin boards do seem to mostly be the ones who either relate everything to themselves or relate everything to their home countries.
If you have other suggestions, leave them in the comments and I’ll make a follow-up post later! If you’ve have links to posts with tips for specific countries, those would be great too. Many of you have more experience overseas than I do, so your general or specific suggestions would be very welcome. Don’t forget to hit up “How to Make the Best of Your Time in Korea” if that’s where you’re heading!