The next class was much better. It`s a typical “good class.” I think their regular teacher makes a world of difference too. Ozawa sensei is a very sweet, understanding lady who speaks fluent English but knows how to keep students in line. They listen to her. Here`s what that class looked like.
I got in at the same time. They seemed happy to see me, but not overly so. They smiled, greeted me in English, and took their seats like civilized people. I passed out the Thanksgiving Day poem, explained it, and they set to work right away. Some of it was hard of them; they had the higher level sheet with instructions in English and six blanks instead of just four. But as I walked around from pair to pair, they asked me for help very politely, and I was able to dispel their confusion with just a few words. When it came time to say the answers, they raised their hands, gave the correct ones, and were very happy to receive their stamps.
During the dialogue practice, if I noticed they were struggling with something, I had enough control that I could pause the class and explain it, then have them continue. They still enjoyed themselves. Many of them laughed at funny-sounding words and played jun-ken-pon (paper-rock-scissors) to decide who would read which part of the dialogue. But I let them have fun, because they`re learning.
“Would you like to eat a Thanksgiving feast?” I asked at the end of class. “You can! On Thursdays, I teach a free English conversation class at a local church. Please come. Next week we will have a Thanksgiving feast! This is the phone number for the church.”
I wrote it on the board, and was surprised to see the student`s eyes widen, and immediately several boys started writing it down. No girls.
Ozawa sensei burst out laughing. “They think it`s your number. Kyokai no denwa bango,” she told them, explaining it was the church`s number. The boys sighed and erased it.
So they`re not perfect angels, but at least they want to learn.
Actually, those are the extremes. Most classes are probably somewhere in between. Some get very frustrated when the don`t understand, but I haven`t had anyone cry yet, which is probably a plus. I remember there was one day in Spanish class I burst into tears because I couldn`t understand what the teacher was saying and she was so insistent that I answer. Maybe that was during a test, though. I can`t really remember.
Here`s what an empty school hallway looks like. Notice how small their lockers are!
I have a small side-note on gender, since so many people have asked me about it. The girls tend to be better than the boys for some reason, though I`ve heard that is pretty typical in ever culture, since women`s brains tend to be more suited to verbal communication while men tend to be more mathematics minded. But the girls and boys have very little to do with each other. If you try to put them in pairs, most of them simply won`t work together. Japanese in general don`t understand the concept of “just being friends;” members of the opposite sex tend to avoid each other outside of work, family, and relationships/sex. Students are discouraged from having a boyfriend or girlfriend until after they graduate and the average marriage age for first marriage is 30 for men and 28 for women, and it is steadily getting higher. (The divorce rate is 27%, about half of what it is in the U.S.) So what are they doing in the mean time? As far as sexual promiscuity goes, it is rampant in Japan. Many girls have part time jobs at hostess clubs, “maid cafes,” porn magazines, dating services, etc, and the age of consent in Japan is 13, (though in some areas it is a little higher) so it`s all legal. Not that these places are intrinsically sex businesses, but it happens. A lot. There is a strong fetish for high school girls in their short school uniform skirts (at the love hotel I visited you could rent these costumes), and a lot of shady businesses advertise that they have these girls working for them. But at least the Japanese are very secretive about their personal lives, so if any of my students or the teachers I work with do that, I wouldn`t know about it, and I like it that way. I spent my first few months in Japan thinking all the things I kept hearing and reading about simply didn`t happen, or at least not so often and were exaggerations. But I`ve started paying more attention to things, and realize that the “rumors” are absolutely true. I have to stop being naïve, wake up, and be more cautious. Things I could do or say with a guy in America just don`t fly here in Japan.
As far as gender equality goes, I`ve heard women are discriminated against, but I haven`t seen it, unless you count the extreme sexualization I listed above. I certainly haven`t experienced it myself. I have noticed that women tend to withdrawal from the business world when they get married, they`ll spend twenty years at home just to raise one kid (the average is 1.2 children per couple) and they still refer to their husbands as “master.” But I don`t really judge those things. If they are happy with their lives, I`m not about to say they are being “discriminated” against. As someone who spent a year working for a feminist literary journal, I`ve come to the conclusion that it`s foolish for Western feminists to assume that every woman in every culture thinks and feels as they do.
So getting back on topic, what is the English level of my students? All of them can read English, at least sound-out the Roman letters, I mean. They`re supposed to have the vocabulary of about a four-year-old or five-year-old, (I know because I`ve administered some tests) but don`t know how to use it in complete sentences, or how to understand it in complete sentences. They`re much better readers and writers than they are listeners and speakers, which is to be expected. It`s easy to study English reading and writing on your own. We only have twenty-six letters compared to their 10,000 and something. But spoken English is very irregular, and of course I sound different from their teachers. Even when I speak extremely slowly, sometimes the teachers will have to repeat exactly what I say, in English, with a Japanese accent, for the students to understand. You know the stereotype that if you just add an “O” to something in English, it becomes Spanish? The same could be said for Japanified English. “Night” becomes “nighto.” “Appointment” becomes “appointo.” Japanese, as a rule, never ends in a hard consonant sound, so it`s really hard for them to say something without it. But we go over this every class, me saying words without the vowel and them repeating, so maybe after a year they will be inappropriate ending-vowel free!
Other than two main classes a day, I often visit another teacher`s class for fifteen minutes or so to give a quiz, talk about a cultural/historical point, or something of that nature. I help teachers understand college entrance exams and check them for students, explain any questions they have about grammar, etc, and correct papers for other teachers. I just finished correcting two hundred and fifty papers from the third year students. They just got back from their class trip in Okinawa. They were pretty funny. It was obvious the students used their English dictionaries on their keitai (cell phones), because some of it came out sounding…interesting. “Gama was scared for me.” (Gama is a place in Okinawa where people hid during WWII, so I think they meant “Gama scared me.”) Most of the mistakes consisted of the absence of “a” “an” and “the” or missing prepositions, like this personal favorite, “I enjoyed eating friends.”
I spend about two hours a day preparing lessons, meeting with teachers, revising lessons, and making copies and auditory/visual aids (posters, songs, etc). I also make a new English bulletin board each week with pictures, text, tongue twisters, and upcoming events for students and teachers to read. Cleaning time is from 3:30-3:45. During that time I help out where I can and converse with the students in English. Students and teachers are responsible for cleaning their own rooms, restrooms, etc, which is really good because it teaches them to respect school property. The only downside is that the bathrooms are never really clean, and smell awful. We do have a janitor who comes maybe once a week or so.
After all that, I still have about two hours a day where I have nothing to do but study Japanese, plan for weekend trips, email, and write these blogs. So it`s a pretty sweet job. Typically, I get off work around 4:15. Twice or three times a week I stay after school until about 5:00 or 5:30 to run English club or tutor a student. We`re supposed to have English club twice a week, but lately it`s only been once a week, because no one`s showing up. The teacher that usually runs it is about to have a baby, so it`s all up to me, and the fact that I speak very little Japanese intimidates most of the students into not coming, even though I plan games and activities that require little to no English instruction. I`m trying to set up a pen-pal exchange with my Japanese class from back in the states, but with only two girls coming regularly at the moment, this is really hard. We`ll see what happens.
Here`s what a typical English Club meeting is like. Around 4:00, two girls come to get me at the computer desk. (I have my own desk, but while all the other teachers are allowed to bring laptops to school, I am not, but I am allowed to use one of the two desktops.) On our way to the language lab, they pinch my sides and giggle.
“Smarto, smarto!” they say, meaning “thin.” I`ve learned just to smile and keep speaking English when they do this. To deny it or say thank you just encourages them to keep pinching. But on the way up the stairs, one of them grabs my bottom. I turn around and give her a stern look.
“That is inappropriate,” I tell her.
Inapotolate?” she attempts to mimic.
“Not nice,” I translate.
When we arrive at the lab, I`m disappointed to find no one else there. So it`s just me and the two girls, not enough to write letters back to my friends in the U.S. or play any of the games I prepared. But I have a back up plan, of course. I get out my pictures of my family. I ask them to tell me about their families. These girls are pretty studious, so they catch on to new vocabulary quickly and when they don`t know how to say something, they look it up and we piece together a sentence. We laugh and joke and have a good time, talking about our childhoods and what was “popular” then. At around 5:00 they say they have to go home. So I get up and one of the girls grabs my chest.
“Oh, big!” she says. “What your size?”
“Feel me!” the other one cries.
Ug. I just ignore them and walk downstairs, enduring their “You have boyfriend? He like you! Who that boy give you ride yesterday? He is handsome! You marry him? Have babies?” (They`re referring to a ride I got from a friend two weeks ago when I misplaced my bike. That`s what I mean by they don`t understand the concept of “just friends.”)
I don`t know if all Japanese girls are like this or if I just got stuck with a bunch of really annoying ones.
Okay, so I`m not complaining. Overall my job is pretty sweet. Other than a pretty decent salary, my perks include very good health insurance, unemployment insurance, free printing, free internet (at school) and the frequent Japanese snacks brought to the office. Whenever another teachers takes a vacation, they bring back snacks from wherever they went, as a way of saying, “thank you” to everyone else for taking on extra work while they were gone. Someone brings something about once a week. I wanted to say “thank you” to my supervisor and another teacher for helping me plan my trip to Yokohama last weekend so I made them rice pudding. I didn`t take ninque for it, I only went on a Saturday, so I didn`t think of making it for everyone. But they shared it with the whole office, and some people asked me, “Laura, why didn`t you make enough for everyone? Please make us all rice pudding!” Oops. My pastor did the same thing when I made something for him and his wife. He shared it with the whole church, even though there wasn`t enough. I have to remember that you can`t give a present to an individual Japanese person. They will always try to share it with the group.
I usually get home between 5:00-5:30, depending on if I have errands to run or not, then make dinner. I usually make two elaborate meals a week, such as clam pasta in butter/wine sauce, salmon soufflé, etc, with some type of desert like sweet potato pudding, custard, pumpkin pie without the crust, etc. which take about two hours to make, eat, and clean up. But they usually last me all week, and if they don`t, I just eat eggs or vegetables with rice or something else very basic.
My washing machine is very small, so I end up doing laundry at least twice a week, especially since it dosn`t seem able to get my clothes clean. They come out with the same dirt they went in with, and when I try to scrub it out with extra soap or bleach, I end up leaving a nasty white or blue stain that won`t come out at all. So I`ve just had to get in the habit of checking over my clothes when they come out of the wash, and if they`re still dirty, just stick them in again. I also don`t have a dryer, which means I hang everything to dry outside, and then the wind blows them off the line into the dirt, and I have to wash them again. Oh, well. I could hang them inside, but I hate having that stupid metal contraption in the middle of my tiny kitchen.
I try to study Japanese for at least half an hour every week day. Sometimes I don`t get it in so I`ll do an hour the next day. I`ve been pretty good about that, but I don’t feel like I`m making any progress. I also try to write or revise my fiction stuff for at least two hours a day. Usually I make it, sometimes not. I always read for about an hour before bed, lately Orson Scott Card`s Shadow series, and The Lord of the Rings. Then I fall asleep somewhere between 11:00 and 1:00am. I should probably get more sleep, but I don`t.
And that`s my life! When I`m not traveling to some strange and exotic locale or dealing with a major crisis. I love my life. Sometimes it`s really hard and frustrating, like this morning when the station manager refused to take my ticket, even though he couldn`t figure out what was wrong with it, and because he made me wait for him to ask three other people for five minutes, I missed the last two trains, and had to ride my bike in the freezing 35 degree (Fahrenheit) rain. Or when I made a list the other day of rejections I`ve gotten for my fiction work and realized I have close to one hundred. But that sort of thing happens to everybody. After all, I`ve also gotten ten acceptances, so that`s ten percent of the stuff I`ve sent out, which is pretty decent most writers say. So all in all, I don`t think I`d rather be anyone else but little old me.