Summer in JAIST

I love early summer. So many sunny days. The chill in the air is gone. Everything is green and beautiful. The summer rains haven’t started. The unbearable heat and humidity that plagues us mid-summer is still a month away. I will enjoy these days that remind me of my childhood.

JAIST in winter

JAIST in winter. Photo by me. Again, no filters.

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JAIST in Spring. No filter.

 

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Summer in JAIST. So nice and green. No filter.

[Edited to add a pic of JAIST in Autumn (my favorite season), to complete the cycle of seasons]

JAIST in autumn. Photo by me. No filters.

JAIST in autumn. Photo by me. No filters.

Turns out this probably won’t be my last summer in Japan, yay! But it’s definitely my last in JAIST so I am going to make the most of it. Now that Jeremy is old enough to go cycling, we’ll go on long bike rides. We’ll go to the beach, and we’ll join friends for barbecues. We’ll have barbecues on the beach. We’ll swim in outdoor pools with slides. We’ll go to festivals and watch amazing firework displays. We’ll eat, drink, play, sleep, enjoy the sunshine. We’ll go hiking, I will go paragliding, finally (because Jeremy is too young for it). We’ll go to the park and I will sit in the shade reading a book while Jeremy clambers about, making new friends and enjoying his childhood. I will defend my thesis and then I will make preparations for my parents and bros to come over for my graduation. I will got Las Vegas in July for a conference and for the whatever-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas. I hope to meet Elon Musk there, for some reason.

We went biking last Saturday:

 

When he's old enough to go for bike rides together 🙂 #summer

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Part Time Jobs I’ve Done in Japan

I’ve been meaning to write this post for weeks, but I got caught up in job hunting/thesis writing/motherhood activities that I hardly slept in April. But whoever said adulting was easy?

The other day, I met a new student from Kenya just freshly arrived in Japan. I miss the energy I had when I was in my 20s. She reminded me of me, freshly faced, curious and mad at the way English is “murdered” on a daily basis in Japan. I have now grown immune to it, but newcomers to Japan always complain about how English is butchered here, how the ls turn into rs.. things I don’t even notice anymore.

I don’t even blink when I see signs translated like this anymore

That got me thinking about the first part-time job I ever had in Japan. See, I got one of the best scholarships in Japan, the MEXT Scholarship. So I didn’t have to work part time; the money is exactly enough to ensure we live just above the poverty line here. If you are single and childless, it is more than sufficient. But I have a son and I like traveling; so I am always in need of more money (I hope there will come a day when I can say that I now have enough money).

Teaching English

Before I brought Jeremy to Japan; I had a lot of free time in the evenings and weekends. Since I couldn’t speak any Japanese, and being a native-level English speaker, teaching English was the one job I thought I could do well. I have taught kids of all ages, from babies to elementary school kids. I have also taught some old ladies (retirement age) who were really more interested in socializing than in learning the proper tenses. After almost a year of teaching a few hours each week, I realized that I was not really good at teaching English. Just because one is a native speaker of a language doesn’t make one a good teacher in said language. After years of studying it in school, we intuitively know what sounds correct but we can’t explain why, we have forgotten the rules behind the grammar.

Convenience Store
After I brought Jeremy over, my evenings and weekends were no longer free. I tried bringing J along with me to my English-teaching gigs, but he ended up disrupting the classes too much. The children would get excited upon seeing him and would lose focus and I couldn’t get him to sit still. So I finally quit teaching English. In any case, I had started taking a few classes in JAIST because I needed about 10 credits to graduate. I had coursework on top of research on top of taking care of J.

We finally settled into some kind of routine by the end of my first year in October of 2016. I had got all the required credits, and had finished a minor research project that is also a requirement for the PhD. I wasn’t sure what my main research topic was at that time.. so it was a time of confusion that is quite common when one is doing a PhD. While I figured out what my research topic was going to be, I decided to take up a job at a 7-11 convenience store; it would be a chance to improve my Japanese, I thought.

Since there is no babysitting service and I have no other family in Japan, I could only work at the “combini” during the week when Jeremy was in the nursery school. I did about 8 hours a week (4 hrs on Mondays, and 4 hours on Thursdays) for about 9 months.

This was my first time working at a min. wage job. It was really tiring, being on your feet for 4 hours without a break. I know people who did 8hr shifts with only 35 minute breaks, and I wondered how they did it. While the money wasn’t all that, I liked the work environment – the manager/owner is really kind. Did my Japanese improve in that time? Well, not really. Besides learning a very fixed set of vocabulary “irasshaimase, arigatou gozaimasu” and counting large figures of money in Japanese, nothing much had changed. My conversational skills didn’t improve because there was no time for idle chatter in the combini, it was busy all the time. I would get home and have no energy left to carry out research for the rest of the day.

I did eventually figure out what my thesis was going to be about though; and then I got really busy writing it up and coding the prototype. So I had to quit the convenience store job, even though we tried a once a week, 4hr shift. It just wasn’t working for me.

TA/LA and IT Helpdesk

I still need(ed) extra money for my many travel plans, so again I was on the hunt for part time jobs that would not tire me out :). I have done some temporary jobs in JAIST that include TA/LA jobs in my lab, such controlling the camera during class recordings (many classes are taped so anyone can access them later). Three times, I have been a TA for an intensive English course. But these are always seasonal and it depends on whether my schedule is free at the time.

Eventually, I got a job at the IT Helpdesk. I really like it there. You choose your own hours from a common calendar. Some days are not so busy and I can actually do some literature reading or write up; and some days are hectic but most problems are usually resolved by restarting the computers causing the trouble. Since I am busy with the thesis now, I’ve reduced my hours there to 4hrs a week. It keeps me grounded – a chance to interact with people outside my lab environment.

The IT Crowd was the best..

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The Big 3 0!

Can't keep calm, it's my birthday weekend! #2daystogo #30

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Yes, I am thirty today. Where did my 20s go? One moment I am joining JKUAT (See blog) as a fresher at 19; I blink and I’m 30 and halfway across the world.

I have spent most of my 20s in school. Undergraduate at JKUAT, Master’s at Strathmore University, and a PhD at JAIST. Finally in my final year and I hope to graduate in September. I have to submit my thesis in two weeks so this post will be brief. I have ignored this blog long enough because well, thesis.

I guess apart from schooling, one thing that had a  profound effect in my 20s was becoming a mother. It’s a continuous journey because he is growing, and I am just hoping I can keep up. So far so good. I am lucky I had the support of my parents for the first couple of years and I have found a support network of friends and Japanese “parents”.

I also had the pleasure (mostly) of working at EY for about 2 years before quitting to pursue my PhD.

I have traveled quite a bit.. from Rwanda, Uganda, to Canada and New Zealand. I hope to see more of other African countries in my 30s.

I am really looking forward to what life has in store for my 30s. I have a feeling that there is so much more to see, to feel, to experience, to do.

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JAIST in Spring

Could this be my last Spring in Japan? I don’t know yet, but tell you what, I am enjoying the sunshine after the cold and very snowy winter we just had. Plus flowers are blooming everywhere, especially sakura (cherry blossoms) that have a somewhat cult-like popularity in Japan!

Here are some pictures, I took in the campus yesterday. No filters. (and a very average Samsung phone)

 

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Sending Money from Japan to Kenya

When I first came to Japan, I left Jeremy in the care of my parents for about  a year. Naturally, I needed to send money for his upkeep from time to time. I also needed to deposit money into my Kenyan bank account to repay my credit card.. etc. Here are the options I have used before (I saved the best for last- WorldRemit, so keep reading until the end):

1. EFT Bank Transfer (using JP Post Bank)

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Image, courtesy

You have to physically go to the bank to fill the request transfer form, although you can set up a monthly standing order. This is by far the most costly option I have ever used. The minimum transaction cost is 2,500Â¥ for any amount (up to 500,000Â¥, I think). In addition, the currency conversation rates are so bad.. you lose money when converting from Yen to Dollars, and then again from Dollars to Kenyan Shillings. Furthermore, Standard Chartered Bank charged me Ksh. 1,000 to “process” the dollar transaction. It also took up to 4-5 working days for the money to arrive in my Kenyan bank account. I needed another option.

  • Pros: can send directly to a bank account
  • Cons: Extremely expensive transaction costs, terrible currency conversation rates, takes a long time to process, cannot send to mobile money e.g. M-Pesa

 

2. Western Union Transfer via 7-Bank

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7-11 ATMs at the convenience store in Narita Airport. Image, courtesy

A friend told me about 7-Bank, under the same corporation that runs the 7-11 convenience stores. It basically works by sending the money to Western Union agents anywhere in the world, and your recipient can pick it up from there. The transaction costs are way less than that JP Post Bank and the currency conversation rates are friendly. You can also send money online, or via the ATM at the 7-11 convenience stores. The money is received almost instantly.

First though, you have to sign up and be verified and this can take up to 2 weeks. I think you may also need to be in the country for at least 6 months, but I’m not sure.. just check the terms and conditions when signing up. It’s been 3 years and I don’t remember very well.

Another option is to just go directly to Western Union agents and send the money; but I live in rural Japan and the nearest agent is a 45-min drive away. So 7-Bank was very convenient for me. However, I could not send directly to a bank account (you can if you’re sending to the Philippines and China, but not any other country). I would send the money to my brother and have him deposit it into my bank account in Kenya.

I used 7-Bank for quite a long time, almost 3 years. I knew it wasn’t the cheapest option but I had become complacent, sticking with what works. It costs 990Â¥ for transactions of below 10,000Â¥, 1500Â¥ for transactions above 10,000Â¥ but below 50,000Â¥ and 2,000Â¥ for transactions above that.

  • Pros: cheaper transaction rates than EFT, better currency conversation rates, near-instant money transfer, ubiquitous 7-11 ATMs for sending money, online transactions possible
  • Cons: cannot send money directly to bank account or MPesa, transaction rates are still high especially if you’re sending small amounts of money

3. World Remit- You can send money to Mpesa from Japan, for free!

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Image, courtesy

You guys, I am not exaggerating neither am I getting paid to advertise WorldRemit, but I found my remittance solution. Just like 7-Bank above, it takes about one week to verify your account after you send your initial money (it is because of tough anti-fraud laws in Japan). After initial verification, subsequent transactions are handled immediately.

Let me just list the pros:

  • Transaction costs for any amount: (virtually zero!) 1¥ 
  • Can send to MPesa, Bank Account (KCB, StanChart, Equity, Barclays and National Bank), or Agent (Upesi Money Transfer, KCB, National Bank), or even airtime top up
  • Fair currency conversation rates: I find them comparable to 7 Bank/Western Union
  • Time to complete transaction: about 2 hours for MPesa, about 1 day for bank transfers
  • You can send money online (only online)

I cannot find any cons!

  • Alright, except for the initial verification which is required by Japanese law. This verification is only activated not upon signing up, but after you send them money for your first transaction. It would be better if they just verified you immediately after you sign up so that when you are ready to send money, you’re already verified but maybe they don’t want to waste resources on people who sign up but never use the service. So just be patient after that first transaction.
  • You need to sign up for online banking from your bank if you haven’t already. When sending funds, you need to go to your online banking and send cash to the WorldRemit bank account. It’s easy to sign up for online banking, use Google Chrome to automatically translate the web pages into English for you if your Japanese ability isn’t up to par.

I hope this post will be helpful to someone!

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Ishikawa Speech Contest

On the 27th of January, I participated and won 3rd place in the 36th Annual Ishikawa Speech Contest for Foreign Residents! By being 3rd place, I was awarded the Executive Director’s Prize, Ishikawa Foundation for International Exchange. I also got a trophy and certificates, and a generous bookshop gift voucher.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite expecting it because I don’t have confidence in my Japanese ability. However, I can tell a story in 5 minutes (in 4 languages now) and that’s what I did.

One thing I can say that helped my confidence was practice. I actually got inspired by this post written by Mbithe Nzomo. She won the annual speech contest in 2015 and got a chance to visit Japan! So if you are thinking of giving speech contests a go, check out the website of the Embassy of Japan in Nairobi (or just Google, you’ll find the appropriate info). In the post by Mbithe, she says that the first step is to give it a shot. Literally, half the battle is won by making the effort to apply. I had some help correcting the grammar from my Japanese teacher, my friend Harumi and also my academic supervisor (he’s cool like that) and then it was up to me to practice. We were allowed to read from the script so it was cool that I didn’t necessarily have to cram it.

Here is the speech I gave. The English translation is below it.

日本にきてから、もう三年が立ちまして、今年は四年目です。この三年間は日本人と会話をしている時に、色々な質問を聞かれました。その中でよく聞かれる質問は「好きな言葉は何ですか。」それで、今日は答えます。夏の一日の話をしながら、十の好きな言葉を伝えたいと思います。

Continue reading

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2018 Goals

We’re already 3 weeks into 2018, how did that happen!

I have really simple but all-time consuming goals for 2018. I’m listing them as 2018 goals but I have actually been working towards achieving some of them for many years, and some are lifetime goals. Some will come to fruition in 2018 but months and years have been spent in the making. So without further ado, *drumrolls please*, these are the 6 things I want to achieve in 2018.

1. Take care of J

This is obvious, right? I’m a mother, it’s what we do. Yes it is, but I just want to acknowledge that it is important work that I do. Teaching, feeding, clothing, cleaning, entertaining, loving, bathing and dressing, nursing, shaking loose teeth, comforting, doing laundry, buying toys and books, reading to.. you get the picture. At the end of 2018, I shall celebrate and toast to a healthy and happy Jeremy.

2. Write my thesis, defend it and graduate
#EnoughSaid

3. Do Japanese Language Proficiency Test (N2 Level). Yes, N stands for Ninja 😀
I enjoy learning Japanese. I wish I had more time to immerse myself in the language.

Just got these books today #JPLTN2 #頑張ります

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4. Go to Las Vegas
I know it sounds random but my final conference as a PhD student might be at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas.
This scene in The Hangover remains one of the best scenes in that movie haha

5. Get a job
I’m about to hit the streets tarmacking. I really want to get into Machine Learning/AI/Big Data/IoT Application Research. Fingers crossed.

Gotta get ready for the interviews!

6. Take care of myself
Sometimes I have to remind myself to get a little exercise and some sleep.

Bonus
Read 12 books. A book a month.

Here’s to 2018!

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