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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Teaching In Japan - To Boldly Go

Despite my claims to have been a junior high school AET (assistant English teacher) on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, my writing in these blogs doesn't really back it up.

But it's true.

Working with and for the Ohtawara-shi Board of Education office (OBOE), I spent four days a week (Monday through Thursday) at one of the seven middle schools in the city (I think there are more schools as the city has expanded since I left).

I would spend Friday at the OBOE catching up on paperwork (20 minutes of report writing on my past work week) and then writing letters to home on my computer (this WAS all before e-mail and the Internet as we know it) and composing either comedic or dramatic short stories or It's A Wonderful Rife (as it was originally called - even for the first couple of years in this blog) true stories for various JET publications in different prefectures or for an English-language weekly newspaper or two (getting a few yen on the side for each of those - so even 22 years ago, I was a professional writer for my Rife tales).

But teaching… ah, teaching… I did do that sometimes.

The majority of the people who were on the JET Programme took their AET duties very seriously.

They wanted nothing more to have everyone in their classes (in those days there were NO elementary school or university AETs) to be able to spew out English as the native speaker team-teaching them.

But not me.

There's great expectations and then there's a dickens of reality. Believe it or not, I am a realist. A dreamer, yes, but still a realist. It makes for many a moral dilemma internally.

When I was hired to go teach in Japan, everyone involved knew I was not a teacher - at least not of English. I was a newspaper reporter with the then-top newspaper in Canada. I was a piano and clarinet teacher making a few bucks on the side. And in my free-time, I coached women's soccer at various levels. I was reasonably smart, funny, easy to talk to and damn, could I communicate.

Actually, there should have been a question mark there. Could I communicate with the Japanese?

Hell yeah. That photo at the top is me with a class of students at Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School) in Tochigi-ken. I'm the tall guy in the ever out-of-date sweater and tie. Check it out. The students are paying attention and appear to be having a good time. How the hell is that possible? How did they even understand me if I couldn't speak their language? 

Pantomime was one way. A few choppy words in Japanese and in English - everyone understood me as long as a long conversation was not required. Then again, there was always someone there who could speak English better than the others, or a friendly neighborhood gaijin (foreigner) who could wakata (savvy) the Japanese lingo better than anyone else had a right to savvy.

Those latter people were always my friends and always close at hand.

While Japanese schools do five full days of learning' plus a short day until around Noon on Saturday, I did four days… and they sure weren't full.

Now… I am talking about those days - a long time ago - back in 1990-1993. Holy schmengies, grandpa! Yeah, yeah. Bite me. Age brings wisdom. Plus senility. But I wouldn't know about that. I hope. Maybe I've forgotten.

JET, back in those days - well, I was part of the second wave of international gaijin in Japan on the still new JET… back when JET was so new they were still trying to quantify if having gaijin come over to teach English to Japanese kids was valuable... unlike nowadays when they are trying to quantify if having gaijin come over to teach English to Japanese kids was STILL valuable.

We must have proved it was, but I'm betting it was because of a different reason than what exists now.

You'll see… because my role as an AET may seem quite lame and ineffectual… except that maybe it wasn't.

I was a human tape-recorder set to "repeat after me".

My pronunciation was and is pretty damn good. I can enunciate to ensure people can hear all of the letters to pronounce a word the correct way.Plus I have a deep voice and when necessary a very loud one - and I'm not afraid to show it off in a loud arena or stadium.

Ashley (my ex-girlfriend), though she was from Georgia and did say "y'all" a lot after a few beers, could and did say "you all" where applicable to the Japanese. Her pronunciation was pretty damn good, as well.

What is interesting to note, is that Ashley was teaching at the Ohtawara Boys High School, and as such, the older students were ONLY five years younger than she was when she first arrived.

Me? I taught grades 7-9 - so 12-15 year-olds… so despite a 10 to 13 year disparity in physical age, there was none in mental age.

We could have fun.

Over those four days when I had to go to a school, out of the five periods of classes in a typical day, being busy meant I would have to go to three of them.

Most of the time I would do either two or three classes a day… sometimes one.

I believe I did four once. I was not happy, as it cut into my free time to do the Daily Yomiuri newspaper crossword puzzle, or to write letters home or to write a story or even do a bit of studying of Japanese… something I did fairly often for at least the first 18 months of my stay in Japan.

So… I worked maybe three hours a day.

Yeah, I stood around a lot, but I was used only when reading was involved - NOT when the JTEs (Japanese teachers of English) were teaching grammar - which they did in classes I was not asked to visit.

Thank god. I may know how to read, write and speak English at a higher level than most people on the planet, but I sure as hell don't know the complexities of grammar rules. I just automatically know what words work well together and in what order. Don't ask me to find the gerund or anything related to split infinitives. Sure I know the famous Star Trek one (the blog title, baby… I know it should be "to go boldly"), but I don't know why.

It's my lack of English grammar skills which precludes me from learning a foreign language… you kindda have to know the rules of your native tongue first. Swell. LOL.

Swollen tongue aside, a typical class revolves around me reading a story or a passage from an English book. Slowly and clearly.

The students will follow in their books, but can hear MY pronunciation of English words and can, hopefully, vocalize it when it comes time for them to read for themselves in front of the class.

Now… despite the high level of English language skills and rules mastered by the JTEs, what is lacking is their pronunciation of many English words… even of certain alphabet letters.

You learn pronunciation from hearing… and if no one can pronounce things as they should, the errors, if you will, will continue.

That's where JET and the AET come in. We are there to teach pronunciation... at least that's how I was utilized. It certainly was necessary, in my opinion.

So… I have no problem in being a human tape recorder. I never had any grand allusions or delusions about being an English teacher. I never was back in Toronto.

I once had an intimate conversation with Mister Inoue... the head of English at the Ohtawara Junior High School. He had been a teacher for 20 years at that time, was involved in student discipline, was well-liked and well-respected by the student and teachers alike.

We discussed salaries - something that JET warned us gaijin to never do. So I did it. My rule is that if any Japanese person dares to ask me a question in English, I dare to give them an honest answer. That's part of 'internationalization', and something I felt better qualified to achieve on behalf of the JET Programme than merely teaching English to Japanese kids who probably knew more about English grammar than I did.

Anyhow... Inoue-sensei asked, and I told him I made 3.6-million yen (US $36,000 in 1990) a year... he told me he made $24,000.

For 20 years of teaching? I immediately felt ashamed, but he noticed my discomfort and said I deserved it because I am leaving the comforts of my home to come to a foreign place - I deserve to be paid 'hazard' pay.

Maybe... but I hardly did anything compared to his responsibilities and work load. And 20 bloody years??!!

No... Japanese teachers used to earn respect more than money - and that meant something... but even by 1990 that respect aspect was eroding.

I was making $36,000 (prorated over a year) as a summer intern at the Toronto Star newspaper... my first 'full-time' job after graduating school... and that was pretty good. It was certainly better than the $17,000 others in my graduating class were making at the small town newspapers.

I'm pretty sure that teachers in Canada - even starting - make more than $24,000.

I love it, though... this man learns that some punk gaijin 'teacher' who isn't a teacher makes 50 per cent more than him... and he's trying to make feel feel good. Inoue-sensei was one of the very best people I met in Japan, as he always went out of hiss way to look after me. He was younger then than I am now.

School teaching skills aside, I did have other teaching skills (music and sports) and could communicate.

It took a couple of months, but I quickly realized that Japanese kids are pretty much just like the kids in Canada. I have no idea what they are like relative to any other country as I only have Canada as a reference, but I assume it is fairly similar.

Kids is kids.

There are the ones that love to learn. The ones who are bored. Sleepy. ADHD. Counting the minutes to lunch. Trying to hide a boner. Wishing they were in ANY other class other than the one teaching a foreign language.

Yeah… that's right. Learning a foreign language is tough and it can be boring. I hated being in French class back in Toronto.

How do you get people to like or want to study English?

By making the classes more fun? Well… sure… the JTEs and I would play hang-man or would play act with the students the stories - first with the book and then without, using props.

It was fun - and I think they looked forward to seeing me in class because they also knew it meant NO grammar. Yes, grammar is necessary (I s'pose), but I'm unsure if anyone has come up with a fun way to teach it. If so, teach me. Really. I'll tell you if it's fun or not.

But… was that all enough to get people to like English a little more? I mean, yes, students became more adept at pronouncing English words - words that their teachers might often have difficulty with—and to their credit would show their weakness and allow me to help them get better… that's the real accomplishment…

But… the only way I could get the students to want to learn more English was to have them want to talk to me outside of class, which would make them want to learn more IN class.

I was - relative to a Japanese teacher of any subject - an ass clown. I probably might be considered that here in Canada, but maybe that's because I like a nice ass and crack people up with a witty bon mot. Look - I can speak the French just swell.

I was smiling all day long in school - heck in Japan. First because I can't believe they pay me to do this, but also because I can't believe I'm in Japan and they are paying me to do this, but also because I'm a friendly guy.Smiling instantly can put a person at ease. Smiling and staring does not. Staring is anything longer than a glace lasting more than three seconds. Maybe even less.

Even though I hated school as a student and forgot to prove as much when I did 14 years of school (Ontario used to have grade 13, and I did grade 12 twice after flunking out and needing to be with kids my own age) plus five years of university (political science) and another two years of community college (journalism) - damn, boyeee - that's 21 years in school. Not including kindergarten mostly because I never went. I was two years ahead in school until that infamous repeating of the 12th grade.

Did I say I hated school? And now I'm in Japan for an additional three years of school? It's why I don't write about it as much. And maybe because it's not as interesting as me talking to the people.

I was and am, a nerd. But not a complete nerd. I can relate to the Japanese jocks because I played and coached sports. I can relate to the artsy types because I played and taught music. I like cartoons. I love comic books.

Respect was earned when I went to every single school club and participated in judo, kendo and baseball for the boys, but also played softball and tennis with the girls, and played clarinet in the music club and even watched and helped the English club.

Friendships were forged - during a lunch break - when I was walking around the school looking like I owned the place and was accosted by a group of six kids - all maybe 14 years of age.

They did the usual game of penis… pointing to each other's penis and saying 'small-small', and then pointing at me. I'm not stupid, but it's all relative, and I was sure I was bigger than the average Japanese, so I said (in Japanese) oki-sai (large size) - howls of laughter from all.If I could answer in Japanese, I would - hell, I was there on an EXCHANGE.

And then one kid points to another kid and says to me in pretty damn clear English: "Mistah Asai hab a berry big penis."

Now... being the adult, I should have put a stop to all this, but dammit, that was pretty damn fine English! So I laughed. And so did all the other kids - except Asai.

Asai - he sheepishly grinned and shrugged his shoulders like he was embarrassed by the attention.

So I changed the topic and asked it they wanted to learn some English.

I taught them every naughty English word you know and a few you don't. They taught me the Japanese equivalent. And… best of all, it was all slang. And no one abused the information to the best of my knowledge. I did tell them not use it in school and to never say these things around the girls.

They told their friends that An-do-ryu-sensei was cool.

All you need is one cool kid to think you are cool and the rest fall in like sheeple.

If that wasn't enough, I was set for life, let me tell you, when it was revealed that one of my favorite kiddie programs growing up in England was The Thunderbirds, which was just then on Japanese television - some 20+ years later after I first saw it. I had named my dog Tin-Tin after the girlfriend of one of the main characters.

We had a common bond, as every type of kid in Japan watched this show done with marionettes. I was in, baby.

Of course, the Japanese Thunderbirds version did NOT call the female character Tin-Tin. It seems that the 'Ti' sound is replaced with a 'chi' sound in the Japanese alphabet. So the name would have been pronounced 'Chin-Chin'.

After an unfortunate toast made by myself at an OBOE office enkai (party) when asked what ways one could say kanpai (cheers), I blurted out several, including the Italian 'chin-chin'.

'Chin-chin' is a Japanese slang phrase for 'penis'.

Needless to say, while all the men at the enkai were holding their heads in their hand and shaking it in shame, the women were all jumping up and hooting and hollering yelling "Chin-Chin!"

I had taught the women a naughty cheer when drinking, and they were proud to use it. I was in, baby.

Because I could out drink a fish, it was easy enough to out drink the Japanese men, as long as we stuck to the basics of beer and or sake rice wine. Because I was a heby durinkah (heavy drinker) and never had a hangover (never have - really), I earned their respect a morning later. Plus I had confided in them that Ashley was indeed my garufriendo (girlfriend) and asked them to honor that secret… a fact that Ashley never heard, so I assume that excluding her, everyone in my city knew she and I were boinking.

As well… because I can out drink a sailor or a Catholic nun, I followed the family of OBOE to the second party and to the third party locations… and I ate every single bit of Japanese food placed in front of me and enjoyed it.

You want to impress the Japanese? Llike their stuff. The Japanese are proud of being Japanese as much as you are proud to be Canadian, American, French, Swedish or whatever. They might be a little more proud than they should, but it really helps them relax when they know that you like Japan and all she has to offer.

They don't have to worry as much about you because as long as you are in Japan - and you have proved you like Japan, they will look after you.

There are so many of you people who go to Japan and refuse to try new things or foods. While I respect your right to do so, I wonder why the hell you wanted to go to Japan.

You don't just absorb the culture by working and visiting a few temples. You became a part of it by being a part of it. You'll never be Japanese - but as long as you make the effort you will be considered 'just like the Japanese'… and trust me… when the Japanese say that, they are paying you a bloody compliment.

One of my better foreigner friends in Japan would NOT eat Japanese food. Not even sushi. He brought his own sandwiches to school everyday and would eat at Dunkin Donut - in my town there was no Dunkin Donut nor did I ever see any place selling luncheon meats, and I sure as hell wasn't eating tuna fish or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.I ate the school lunches everyday and bought prepared Japanese meals at the local grocery store every day I wasn't making my famous chili or lasagne for my foreigner buds. So I ate Japanese food maybe 4 or 5 times a week for dinner and at least 5 times a week for lunch. I never ate breakfast unless I had female company spend the night, which in hind sight was actually fairly often - especially on weekends.

That gaijin friend, by the way, married a Japanese woman and is still there 25 years after he first arrived. I can only hope for his wife's sake that by now he will eat Japanese.

Me? I wanted to eat whatever the Japanese ate. I ate every single school lunch with the students. I learned to use chopsticks as well or better than themselves, even if my grip was slightly… gaijin. Kids expecting to see me drop food on myself were disappointed after one month into my stay. I was taught by the Japanese, and I learned.

And this is all from a guy who had never researched Japan prior to arriving; had only ever lived at home; had no clue how to do anything for himself and, of course; was a virgin. Two months in, I was just 'like' the Japanese. In a good way.

Teaching in Japan - on JET or privately - its different, but it's exactly the same.

No matter how you slice the sashimi (that's simply slices of raw fish or meat), it still boils down to relationships and how you can make your time in Japan fun for everyone you meet.

Lastly... though an unofficial designation, the Tochigi-ken prefectural board of education seemed to know all about me and how popular I was with the students, calling me 'their best teacher'. Heady praise indeed, I must admit, and one I am quite proud off.

It's also why I know Noboko's father knew all about long before I ever went to his house as a dinner guest two-plus years later. He was the so-called boss of all the Japanese junior high school teachers in the northern part of Tochigi-ken where his darling daughter lived and taught and where I also happened to lived and teach.

Given my reputation with the students, and more than likely with all the amoral scuttlebutt floating around with my dalliances with the adult female population of Ohtawara-shi that most of the city either admired, was shocked by or wanted a piece of, he must have known that if I was 'friends' with his beautiful daughter, my friendly intentions must have been more than what was seen on the surface.

We'll see about that later.  

Kanpai,
Andrew Joseph

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