Be afraid, Have fun

Quick update: I’ll be uploading several posts within the next few days. I got behind on posting, but I have been writing.

Thus far, orientation appears to be 95%:

  • If you do any of the following, you’ll be fired
  • How to handle low motivation students who don’t want to be in class

And 5%:

  • Have fun and be enthusiastic!

It’s…well, I’m really susceptible to authoritarian language for some reason. I recognize that I don’t want to obey as much as I did when I was an uptight, stalwart teenager, but the vestiges of that are still alive in me. So, when I’m told over and over again that if I lose my red folder I’ll be terminated, the only thing I want to do is lock that folder away and never touch it again. Unfortunately it is the most important thing I need for my job as well, so I feel like I have to carry around a bit of radioactive material with me every day.

The language is interesting – there’s a hard edge to everything, yet it’s all smothered in giggles. Everyone should have fun and never step out of line. I haven’t been here long enough to put my finger on it, but there’s this odd cultural back and forth. I’m watching the veteran teachers shrug off inconsistencies and hard redundancies as “very Japanese.” I don’t know what that means yet, but it’s making for some language that is very at odds with itself. We get rules that are described as both ironclad and unnecessary.  Be afraid. Have fun.

Does this mean the stereotype about Japan having rules for rules sake is not a stereotype?  So far, all I’ve been given are rules I must not break. And they give them repeatedly, and couple them with stories of who got terminated for breaking said rule. Today, for the third day of orientation, I’ll be given a list of classroom procedures that I must do every day…or else? I thought it would be a little more lax – that the unyielding wall of procedures was a smokescreen to weed out those looking for a free trip to Japan. It’s looking less and less like that is true. As our teacher contact put it, “If you can find happiness here, you can survive anywhere.” Yeah. I couldn’t tell if that was a translation issue or not.

I’d say it’s also difficult being the new person. My fellow “new” teachers have all at least taught for my company before, or have taught in Japan. And the veteran teachers say, “But we all know already…” a lot. I stop them every so often, but it’s intimidating, feeling like I’m the one person who doesn’t know what everyone already understands, especially as concerns the cultural divide. I have the least amount of experience teaching ESL, and the least amount of experience teaching in Japan. I keep worrying that I’ll get found out, even though I’m perfectly qualified.

I’m writing this to find a silver lining – like, if I can make this work, then really I can do any job out there. Not just ESL – any job. I’m not going to let all this doom-and-gloom get the better of me. So what if one teacher solemnly looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re working at [redacted]? Good luck, you’ll need it.” I mean, that’s how all the best stories start, right? Going into the break, the wormhole, the maw – that’s how you become a protagonist.

I’ll be happy to get out of here for a day – I’m going to go sightseeing this weekend with one of my new compadres. I need a reminder that I’m across the largest ocean again. The daily sushi simply isn’t enough…




One Fork. One Spoon.

Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Instant Coffee

When my family got stationed in Greece, I remember walking into our house on Kolokotroni Street, taking in the old amber lighting, the brown linoleum floor in the kitchen, and my small white twin bed, and feeling thoroughly overwhelmed. The pieces were there, but it did not feel like my home.

Our shipment of household boxes from the States wasn’t expected to arrive for at least a month, so in the interim we were given a “care package” from the Embassy. It had movies, pots and pans, cleaning supplies – basically everything that one needed to quickly acclimate and get to living (except the movies. The movies were not helpful – they weren’t even that good as I remember). Our embassy contact took us to the sprawling Carrefour, and walking us through the Greek foods, showing us how the coin-operated shopping carts worked. In essence, there was a system in place to help us with the culture shock of being in a foreign environment.

To some extent, my Japanese company does the same thing. We had a corporate representative take us to the municipal office to get our residence cards (so we can pay taxes), and then to the post office to set up bank accounts. I have no idea what is going on, much like when I was in China, so I’m grateful for the hand-holding. There is so much trust required – you give all your details over to strangers, who begin integrating you into their system. I wonder how my identity web stretches over the world…

Paperwork is one thing. Living, however, is another.

Last post, I lamented my blank canvas apartment on which I was not to paint. But I was assured that we’d get a care package box that would help us through that initial hurdle of living. Here is what was in the box when it arrived:

-one fork
-one (soup) spoon
-two plastic bowls
-a plastic mug
-one chef’s knife
-cutting board
-laundry hanging device
– five hangers
– trash can
-toilet paper

And that’s it. It goes a long way towards explaining why the company recommended bringing about half a month’s salary with us before we arrived; they give us very little to help with the transition. Let me be clear: I was not expecting a second embassy experience. Naturally, things are going to be different not only because of the country, but also because I’m working for a private Japanese company. I’m independent now (whee!), not my Mom’s dependent. And I’m just one person, not a family, so I don’t need as much.

Still. I brought two suitcases with me – one with clothes, the other with supplies. But I did not bring coffee mugs, plates, etc. When I moved in the States, I filled my car with the things I felt I needed, some of it necessary, a portion of it decorative. When I went off to college, I had a similar set of supplies. It’s not the same thing, starting from the contents of that one box. One spoon. One fork.

This is a good thing, I tell myself. This will teach me to live with less. This will help me figure out what I really need.

What I really need, it turns out, is a butter knife.

You don’t know what you miss till it’s not there. I use my small frying pan as a strainer when I boil vegetables or make ramen. The small pan also serves as a sort-of lid for the pot when needed. I toast bread in the pan as well. I boil water for tea and (instant) coffee in the pot. I make all my sandwiches with an eight-inch chef’s knife. I have to wash everything immediately because I only have one of anything.




I’m saying this a little out of order. I’ve been to a grocery store and bought some basics – ramen, eggs, miso paste, etc. (I didn’t know about miso paste. One of the teachers showed me where it was). I went up the 100 yen shop and bought a water glass and a proper ceramic coffee mug. I picked up some chopsticks and a tiny teaspoon (I realized I couldn’t eyeball instant coffee with a soup spoon). I don’t know what I need until I need it, and then I have to decide if I really need it. For example, I keep wanting to make carrot sticks, but I have no peeler. I opted to buy a smaller knife instead, because I can do more with the knife than the peeler.

There is also the time factor. Whether I choose to renew my contract or not, I most likely won’t be staying in the same place. The company moves teachers each contract, so whatever I buy I either have to sell, take back home with me, or pay to have removed. It means that every purchase has to be weighed on a timeline. It’s why I only bought one glass instead of four – I’m not going to play hostess here if I have to get rid of everything in five months time (especially if I have to buy it again). So do I really need it? Will I use it for six months? What will I do with it once the contract is done?

Finally, there is money. I won’t get paid for several weeks. Do I really need item A, or can I wait? If I can wait, how long can I wait? Can I wait long enough that I don’t need it? These are the “positive” questions I ask myself – questions that force clarity and make me face my inner drive to accumulate things.

We have a small lull before work starts, which is why I have the luxury of complaining about having to start from scratch. I imagine once this whole teaching things kicks off I will be properly distracted. That is my hope. Because I hate mooning over mixing bowls.




In the Interim

I got back from Japan.

Then I lost a job.

And so I applied for a job in Japan.

I went to the Grand Canyon.

Now I’m heading back overseas…to Japan.

I’m not sure this is where I’m meant to be. I don’t think this is my final stop.

But this blog will go back to what it was in the beginning – writing about living in a part of the world, while talking about teaching and the EFL/ESL experience.

To those of you who missed me – I’m flattered.
To those of you who find me – enjoy!

When I met you I was but the Learner…

Happy Star Wars Day! Now, an unrelated story about teaching and learning:

It’s a three day weekend, and I am being very, very lazy. I mean, I went running two days ago, and yesterday I wrote five decidedly decent pages of book while sitting at a tea house for four hours, but otherwise it’s been ramen and video games.
My reasoning is I’m headed to Shanghai for a few days – I’ll be super busy then.

Today promised to be no different. I went up to the eighth floor with my embroidery, knowing my room needed to be cleaned. I sat and stitched, politely smiling and defleting comments from the man watching me. Along the window were two young girls, perhaps around 10 or 12. They watched me too, but they had work to do. I could feel their curiosity, though. Little kids can’t hide it – it’s one of things I find admirable (and sometimes annoying) about them.

Eventually, and through the cunning use of the hallway that runs around the back of the buffet area, they sidle over to me and shyly watch. I looked up and smiled.
“Hello,” they say in unison.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you. How are you?” they say, again together.( If this were a horror movie, the music would cue).
“I’m good, thank you.”
“Beautiful,” says the shorter girl, pointing to my embroidery.
“Thank you. When it is finished, it will look like this,” I say, giving them the cover art. They nod.
“Where are you from?” asks the taller girl, in very clear English.
“I’m from America – near the middle of America,” I say. The smaller girl smiles wider.
“My brother is in America too,” says the taller girl.
“Really? Where in America is he?”
“I don’t know. I just know he’s in America.” This sentence amuses me, partly because she says it with startling clarity. For twelve, she’s obviously had quite a bit of exposure to English. It also confuses me because it’s very vague for family talk. How do you not know where in America your family is?
“What…” Tall girl hesitates
“…brings…” prompts the shorter girl.
“…brings you to China?” she concludes.
“I am an English teacher here – Wo shi lao shi ying yu.”
“Ah, an English teacher!” exclaims the small one. At this point the man who was watching me earlier speaks up, and has a small conversation with the girls. I gather he is asking for them to translate what I’m saying into Chinese.

“What are your names?” I ask.

“My name is…Joyce!” The small one says after a pause to remember the English name she chose.

“My name is Sarah!” Says the taller one.

“My name is Jean. Do you have any other questions for me?” I ask, starting to go back to my work.
“English is difficult language,” admits the taller one. It’s my turn to smile.
“Chinese is a difficult language for me. If you need help with your English, I’ll help you. And then, you can help me with my Chinese. It was nice to have met you both.” The girls smile and nod, and we all go back to our projects.

I stitch and think about watching a movie, making some ramen, playing some Mass Effect or some Assassin’s Creed (still have to actually finish the game – I like sailing around too much). A second, more powerful thought process co-opts my thoughts of sitting on my butt doing nothing the rest of the night. Something I had said to the girls makes my brain start clicking. I rise, packing up my things quickly. As I start to leave, the girls say goodbye.

“Can you help me with my Chinese homework?” I ask. They say yes, and look quizzically at me as I trot out of the dining area.

Not long after I arrived in Wenjiang, in a moment of grabbing the bull by the horns, I picked up a children’s school workbook. It’s a series of matching, writing, and Kindergarten level Chinese sentences. I don’t understand most of it. Grabbing the book, I return to the dining area. Sarah and Joyce (note: not their real names) meet me, and stand over my shoulder as I illustrate my ineptitude.

What follows is one of the best language lessons I’ve had in a while.

Perhaps because it was absolutely ridiculous. I’m thirty, and I’m learning the following:

  • Xiao ji shì dòng wù, xiao yā yĕ shì dòng wù (A chicken is an animal, a duck is an animal too).
  • Xiăo hái er hé xiăo gŏu zài wán fēi pán (The child and her xiăo dog are playing Frisbee).

Here, I learn that “xiao” is a term of endearment – it means “small” normally. Sarah agrees when I ask if it’s like a nickname. She’s excited to learn the English word “Frisbee.” Fēi pán literally means “flying plate.”

  • Tàiyáng dāng kōng zhào, miányáng zài chī căo (The sun is in the sky, sheep are eating grass).

Here Sarah helps correct my pronunciation. The “c” sound in căo is pronounced like a “tz” and the “zh” in “zhào” is pronounced more like a French “j” or “g” (like “The woman wears rouge on her cheeks when meeting Jean-Claude”).

Joyce and Sarah are clearly excited to be explaining words to me. They debate between each other in energetic little girl movements before settling on a definitions or explanations. And I cannot help but be very impressed with their language skills. Sarah even tries to explain the difference between simple present and present continuous to me, and I am happy to let her. This is so damn wonderful for all of us. I’m learning Chinese, they’re strengthening their English.

What impresses me, at least from a teaching perspective, is the seeming ability for young people to absorb new ideas with a greater ease than when they are older. At least, it seems like that here. These two little girls know all these words in English, and when I teach them a new word, they immediately put it to use. A couple of my high school students have to be dragged into new vocabulary, and are reticent to use it at all. Even my strongest student would only have the advantage of a high school vocabulary over these two little teachers.

(Yet another note: I am not speaking for myself. I don’t know if I can be unbiased toward my own abilities.)

Teaching college did not require me to have a degree in Education, but I know teaching high, middle, and elementary school does. I wish I knew how to properly articulate what I am seeing in more academic terms. I know very little of learning theory, save what I learned getting my CELTA, and toddler psychology from working at KidVille.

Is this an example of the increasing Western influence in China? As 2 Broke Girls, Harry Potter, and Spongebob make their way into the cultural scene, will more young people have a natural base level of English? Or is this an example, perhaps, of what happens when language training begins from a young age, as opposed to later in schooling? I have no doubt that those two girls, if they continue, will be incredibly sought after in the job market. As young as they are, they are well on their way to being bi-lingual in two of the most critical languages in the world today. I sincerely hope they find a way to use their natural skills.

They certainly pulled me out of my doldrums!

May the Force be with them.

To be Happy

Me: Hello! How are you today?
Student 1: I am…happy.
Me: That is good to hear. Hi! How are you?
Student 2: I am happy.
Me: You are also happy?
Student 2: Shen ma?  (translation: What?)
Me: You are also happy? She (gesture to student 1) is happy. I (gesture to me) am happy. You are also happy? (gesture to student 2)
*Chinese chatter*
Student 2: Hao – yes.
Me: Good. Hi? How are you feeling?
Student 3: I am happy.
Me: (to myself) Of course you are…

15 happy students. When I studied to get my CELTA, I remember learning about ruts. Students understand one word, and so they will use that word even if it only sort of applies.  If you can’t remember how to say “annoyed” then you might as well say “happy” because you at least know what that word means. Happy is this all-encompassing word for “not bad.” And it is, apparently, the one emotion my students feel comfortable using. Except for my slightly sarcastic student who will use “sleepy” and “hungry” on occasion. It’s my own fault – I didn’t emphasize neutral words during vocabulary building.

So today, I started class with a mini-vocab building lesson. On the board, I wrote “I am HAPPY.” with happy circled and underlined. Then I re-enacted the beginning of class. I am happy. I am happy. I am happy. I am happy. With each repetition, I slumped a little more. Giggles meant I was understood.  I then started to write other words around HAPPY – great, good, alright, fine, ok, in a good mood. These words, stemming from happy, will hopefully work their way into my class’ vocabulary system. And I am aware that feeling ok and feeling happy are not quite the same thing, but that is the point. Nuances are crucial, and happy is a good starting point to explain that.

This is not to say I would not be thrilled if my students were all, each and every one, happy. What a great way to be – authentically happy all the time. Except they’re high schoolers, so I know for a fact that this is not true. They’re probably bored, and tired, and angsty, and frustrated, and in love, and overworked, and melancholy, and excited, and jealous, and chilly (it’s not quite warm out), and a hundred other emotions. Happy, as a catchall, belies the depth of feeling. It is also is a buffer – my students don’t have responses to “Why are you happy?”  But it is a safe word for “even keel” – and I get that.

Douglas Adams says it best: “…the best way not to be unhappy is not to have a word for it.”Perhaps if I don’t teach them how to express negative emotions, they’ll never have them in English…

Then again, today I asked a student “How are you?”
“TERRIBLE!” She exclaimed dramatically.
“Terrible?!” I imitated. “Why are you terrible?”
“Because…teacher give me…many vocab work!”

Learning 🙂