Letter from Japan #2

Dear Bob,

Geez, it’s been a month already? I thought time would be going by a bit slower. That was part of the point!

This letter will probably be disappointing on the cultural-exposition front. The special circumstances I mentioned in the last have really cushioned the culture shock. But I haven’t really done much outside of home or work yet either, mostly due in part to my desire to be cozy. It’s FREEZING over here. This is the coldest and snowiest winter the locals have ever seen in something like 30 years.

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It’s never too cool for school. Now where do I park?

Enter, the kotatsu. One of the many brilliant innovations to keep your body, not the room, warm. From the outside it’s just a low table with a blanket in between two slabs. But under that blanket is a tropical paradise. It is very difficult to part with in a world where I can see my own breath indoors.

Here’s my haiku on the matter:

 “Winter’s Journey”

electric Blanket

cold cold cold cold cold cold cold

heated toilet seat

Here are a few more of my favourite things so far, before I move onto the neurotic portion of this letter.

  1. Natto: is fermented soy beans, and simply one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. I’m lucky to say so because not only is it the healthiest and cheapest food available, even many Japanese find it gross with it’s old sock-like smell and phlegm-like consistency. I eat it over rice with the same enthusiasm as cheese on pasta.img_20170117_230542_354
  1. Engrish: In Asia, English is the preferred language of consumerism. It’s all over clothes, stationary, gift bags, product labels. It’s not supposed to be perfect, or make sense, but the haphazardness often reaches levels of absurdity you just can’t make up. And sometimes, beyond the garbled syntax, there’s hidden depth lost in translation. I cannot resist. And so collecting Engrish is one of my greatest, simplest joys in life. In Korea, too, I shipped home about 5 boxes of the stuff. It’s how my zine was born (but here, weirdly, I can’t find A5 size stationary anywhere! So, R.I.P. The Free Wheel).
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so close
  1. Private karaoke rooms: These are high quality. Even in a small town there is a surprisingly plentiful and current list of English songs. Yes, I anticipate spending a lot of time here.
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It’s like they were expecting me

So I’m still learning Japanese, but at about the same rate as my smallest kids are learning English – which is to say only when disguised as fun (or necessary). Mostly I understand what I hear most often and have bothered asking what it means, or what I use most often when I have bothered asking how I say it. For example, “hazukashi”, which is roughly to say something is embarrassing; that I’m embarrassed. Or shy, awkward, ashamed, put on the spot, uncomfortable…I’m not really sure if it’s a catch-all or if the nuance is untranslatable and it’s the common denominator of all these feelings. And this is why new-language learning is incredibly intimidating for me. I WILL use the wrong word. I WILL NOT be understood! I have to get over that. Anyway, I also try to also learn the opposites at the same time, you know, to stay positive. But I do try to intentionally memorize at least 1 word a day, and watch one YouTube lesson a day, so here’s hoping it adds up into full sentences. I’m not happy with my progress here so far.

I wonder if my teaching reflects how I learn. No one’s really dictating how I do either. It’s all up to me. It’s a lot of pressure, but I would want it no other way. But is it because I’m stubborn, or because deep down I truly know what’s best?

One thing’s for sure – I am free. Maybe the freest person I know. Outwardly, my life is simple. I have no family ties. Very little responsibility. No major psychological restrictions (that I can tell). Privilege. But with freedom comes responsibility, and I’ve always had this pervasive sense of not doing enough; like, failing to live up to my potential. I would hate for that to transfer into my ability to teach, or into my estimation of my students.

I feel like my classes are going well. But it’s hard to tell with no feedback, and I can’t rely on my students to tell me what they feel or what they want from me. For instance, I was under the impression from the last teacher that the 1:1 classes are strictly conversation, which was all well and good for my more outgoing students, but when my more introverted ones started getting more nervous and skipping class, I asked and learned that there has to be more to it than that. So there I was thinking I’m doing a good job forcing conversation out of people who are clearly uncomfortable, when I was actually completely missing the point. I felt like an idiot. So I can never really trust myself to think I’m doing well. Which sucks, but it’s probably for the best.

When I assume we’re on the same page though (and I do feel it’s safe to say in most cases), I am finding this work so satisfying. There’s such a variety of personalities, levels, demographics to teach to, from a group of babies who just need to be entertained and showered in English (my most exhausting class, but only 30 mins once a week), to a couple of self-proclaimed hikkikomoris who don’t want to be here (YET), to a fluent company man to whom I explain the nuances of English communication even I take to granted while he vents about work issues, to a philosophy class with 3 old wise ladies. Very small class sizes means I will get to know them individually. As long as I stay on my toes I can’t see myself getting bored after my typical 1 year expiry date. If I do, it probably means I failed as a teacher.

Thanks for reading! ‘Til next month. This is where I’ll be

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ATOP my electric blanket, NEXT to my heater, UNDER my kotatsu, hotpacks IN my clothes, ON my computer…

 

P.S. I’m back on Facebook now, back to being inundated with bad news. Wondering if it would be unethical to to ignore it. Feeling guilty for even considering it…”how dare the state of the world infringe on my own happiness?”

It does though. But maybe it should be the price I pay for being a member. I’d like some thoughts on this.

[Note: comments are welcome either here or on our Facebook page.]

11 thoughts on “Letter from Japan #2

  1. Good read! I know what you mean about “being inundated with bad news. Wondering if it would be unethical to to ignore it. Feeling guilty for even considering it…”how dare the state of the world infringe on my own happiness?””

    Hatred of the “Other” seems to be spreading all over the world. Perhaps the one thing we can do is write caring, thoughtful pieces like this one and hope people will read and think. And care.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Once upon a time we had some teenage Japanese students staying with us on an exchange program. One night for supper we fixed a traditional Canadian meat and potatoes plus other vegetables meal. The other vegetable was beets freshly plucked from our garden. The guests had no experience of beets, but tried them and most of the four liked them. As an aside – they ate meat with gusto.

    The next morning when they woke and dressed we could hear them from their room chatting away about something that seemed serious. Finally one of them came upstairs and and said “Mr. Bob, please take us to the hospital!” (Difficult conversation ensued.)

    Finally the reason for health care came out: they were all peeing red!

    After we explained some of the properties of beets we all had a good laugh.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Your teaching experience sounds fantastic and I can understand the pressure you feel. Students leave and you are never sure if you actually achieved something, if progress is being made. But student and teacher definitely learn more feeling freedom and having fun and learning from each other. I have it easier than you though because my students and I speak Spanish so I can always cheat and explain in my native language.
    Shiawase ! (Good luck in Japanese? ☺)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah but it’s okay because I have Google Translate, which is a decent tool for translating and a very good way to get everyone laughing at the awkwardness of the translations!

      Like

  4. I have 130 students ranging in age from 0-80. They come once a week either 1:1 or in classes up to five. Classes are between 45 mins – 1hr. There is NO CURRICULUM! Like, none at all! The philosophy of the school is very laid back; learn and then teach to the student, follow their lead if they offer it sort of thing. Develop a good relationship so they feel motivated to engage. Oh, and it’s a supplementary English school so they are already either drained from their school day or exceedingly hyper. It goes both ways often in the same group, which is the biggest challenge for me, to establish a common and equal focus!

    So typical day will be a 1:1 adult conversation class in the morning, a class of 4-5 year olds followed by a class of 5-8 year olds (which are largely play-based. There’s a room of toys and games and I just need to devise ways for them to speak English using play/songs as an incentive…or games that are secretly lessons!)
    Then I move to my smaller room with 1 big table for my elementary/jr high groups (these have groups have a longer class with their Japanese teachers upstairs either before or after mine and I’m not even kept in the know with what they do unless I ask them). Then a couple more 1:1 with adults or high school students.

    As for what I DO….I will save that for a post!

    But there is a lot of this:

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The conception almost all of us have of reality is the one we learned from our people as we grew up.  This is how it is in every society:  American, Russian, Chinese.  As we grew up, we learned that reality was thus and so.  In our society, we learned that it was made up of atoms and sub-atomic particles, that women were inferior to men, that war (though regrettable) was essential to civilized life, and that our major life goals should be success, security, and productivity.  We learned to think, feel, and strive in the patterns we learned from our people.  As they did in their time.
     Almost all human beings live in a world created by words, ideas, values, rituals, myth, and/or the mass media.  These elements together make up a framework of orientation, a world view; and most people are convinced that theirs is the only true one.  All of our activities, our thoughts and feelings, the very shape, texture and quality of our lives are defined by this ambiguous and   tangled collection of ideas, images, assumptions, and values.  This framework of orientation is so close to us, so taken for granted, that it limits our freedom to see the world in any other way.  
     It is as though we were early in life hypnotized to see, feel, think, and behave in certain ways, and, like hypnotic subjects, we dutifully do as we have earlier been instructed to do.  Mystics call this “the trance of everyday life.”  It is a serious problem because, as it turns out, many of the instructions we have been given in this trance are destructive and self-destructive.     

    Have you been In Japan long enough now to begin to see these “different takes” on “reality”?

    Like

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