Sunday, June 29, 2014

Notes on Teaching in Japan

I think teaching English is a lot of Westerners’ ticket into Japan. We’re inherently qualified, we feel confident in our abilities to speak our own language, and understanding Japanese is sort of a disadvantage because it allows the students to speak Japanese and not English (much like living in Takayama, a tourist town, allows me to speak English and not learn any Japanese). The few English speakers that I’ve met either teach English, or started out teaching English and then changed professions once they obtained a work visa.

I was a teacher in the States, and while I’m definitely not one of those holier-than-though teachers who think children are little miracles and the guiding light of our future, I do enjoy teaching the little bastards. I learned from my mentor, Jorgan, that teaching is a lot of fun, and that turning a roomful of animals into (somewhat) civilized human beings can be a very rewarding process. Don’t get me wrong, if my novel goes platinum I’d quit as soon as the school year’s over (speaking of which you can get it on your ereader at smashwords) but I don’t mind teaching, and can’t think of a way I’d rather pay the bills. So I think I’m a little different than the average English teacher, because I saw how things were done in the States. And believe me, there are more than a few differences between teaching in the States and teaching in Japan.

An American I met here summed it up nicely: “Japan and America are backwards.”

It’s true in a lot of ways. In Japan you drive on the opposite side of the road, vegetable gardens in your front yard is normal, sushi is cheap, and hamburgers are expensive. On the train, elderly people actually stand up so kids can sit down. In the States, I can’t count the times I’ve seen adults blithely ignore an elderly person on the bus while they yammer away on their phone. Men don’t even hold doors for women anymore. Some do, guys trying to get laid and pastors, but I think manners are generally thrown out the window when college starts.

That’s the biggest difference between Japan and the United States. In Japan, adults are very polite, and the kids are rude. In the United States, children are expected to be very well behaved, and the adults get a free pass. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with some real terrors, but in general the kids in the States are expected to be seen and not heard. Getting school clothes dirty is a frowned upon, as is running around a classroom screaming “Ancho! Ancho!” with your hands clasped together and ramming them up your teacher’s ass-crack.

That’s all OK in Japan. The playgrounds have mud pits, where the children are encouraged to either roll mud into spheres (with their hands!) or dig trenches and generally make a mess.  “Ancho” is a real thing, and while its frowned upon, most of the teachers seem to think its endearing, like a kid yelling out the correct answer without raising his hand. In the States, if I high fived a student, there was a fear of legal repercussions, I probably could have been hung if a child’s hand found its way between my cheeks. Here, I’m expected to pick the kids up, twirl them around, endlessly rub their heads and let them crawl on me like a jungle gym.

The first day in the classroom was beyond enlightening. My boss finished his lesson (a nice euphemism for dancing around and chanting in English for 30 minutes) and left the room to go help with lunch. All of a sudden a 5 year old Japanese boy came running out of the bathroom butt-naked. As in nothing. No shirt. No underwear. He wasn’t even wearing socks. He started shaking his little wiener for the class to see and to my horror they all began to strip. Boys and girls just dropped trow and let it all hang out. Within a minute I was surrounded by a 30 naked Japanese children.

What was going to happen when my boss, or even worse, their actual teacher came back? My life in Japanese prison flashed before my eyes. Would I be confined to a wicker cage, or forced to kneel on pointed tiles as they laid stone blocks upon my thighs? Would someone stick bamboo shoots under my fingernails or did that task now belong to a robot?

My boss chose that moment to return. I clutched my passport and looked for the exits. I was on the second floor, but maybe I could shimmy down some bamboo. No such luck. I was trapped. Goodbye Japan, hello hari-kari.

“Today’s a splash day, would you help them get dressed if they ask?”

He turned and left without batting an eye.

Oh. Duh. They just had to change clothes. They’re just a bunch of naked kids, so what? They all paid more attention to my gold toenail polish than to each other’s naked butts. And rightly so. We’re all the same after all, especially at that age. After a little thought (and a couple of beers) it seems like a more natural view of nudity than we have in the United States.

I’ve been in the same position in Texas, a roomful of kids had to change into swimsuits to go splash around outside, but it was a much more frightening experience. The first grade teacher ushered out all the girls while she eyed me like mother hen eyes a fox. It was just us boys, but not one of them hurried to change. Instead they all scurried to the corners of the classroom to change clothes in shame. Is it really a good thing for a six year to have issues with his body image?

It’s not like there’s people naked on the streets in Japan. Again, I think Japanese adults look more put together and professional than American adults. I’ve never seen anyone in their pajamas at the grocery store here, something that’s commonplace in Austin.

There’s a shift in Junior High, when kids start to go through puberty I guess. My junior high students are very serious about school, and always tell me how tired they are from hours of school, extracurricular activities and the endless English classes (Japanese students are required to take English grammar tests that I’m sure I would fail). They don’t climb on me, or threaten me with anchos and they would never change clothes in public.

But the kids get to act like kids. They catch bugs, jump in puddles, and smear their teachers with all sorts of goop.

I think it’s impossible to go through life always being well behaved. Manners and customs have their place, but I think we all need to rebel against them to appreciate why they exist at all. It’s part of life, we have to exercise the animal in us, so we know when it’s time to shape up and act civilized, damn it.

I like that the kids in Japan get to be the animals. After all, they don’t know any better, they’re kids. They have plenty of time to mature, and they do. They grow from little ancho-ing banshees into incredibly polite adults, and isn’t that better than wearing pajamas at the grocery store?

Joe Darris currently lives in Japan with his darling wife. If you enjoyed this story, please share with your friends on your favorite social media!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Super Robot Soap Battle at Nagoya Castle!

I’ve been in Japan a week now. I’ve eaten raw fish from the grocery store, bought coffee from a vending machine, slept on the train and bashed my head into multiple exit signs. My darling wife and I have been living in a one room hotel and are heading out to Takayama, Gifu, in two more days. I’ve learned that I know nothing about this crazy place, but in typical western fashion, feel ready to share what I’ve learned on the internet. I'm feeling confident enough to boast because this morning I did laundry, which was in itself an entirely new experience.

We trudged down the hall and into the elevator (carefully stepping under the exit sign) and down to the first floor. I approached the washing machines with cautious optimism. I know how to wash clothes. It’s easy. You open the machine, add clothes, put in your money, the water starts to flow, finally add the detergent, and… Oh wait. I didn’t think to pack a jug of detergent into my already overstuffed luggage.

During an enlightening trip to the grocery store, my boss explained that in Japan, it’s polite to give people practical gifts. There are entire sections in grocery stores devoted to specially packaged gifts. People give their clients things like soba noodles, cooking oil, beer, and even laundry detergent as a way to say thank you for their patronage. The gift versions of these items come in fancy boxes (in other words, regular boxes) and cost much more than a regular 6-pack.

Unfortunately I have no business contacts. In practice I owed my boss a gift (He said it was unnecessary but thanked us for the jar of jalapeno-peach jelly wrapped in a Texas Flag all the same). Did I think to go and get a regular jug of soap? Of course not. My brain spun in empty circles about the strange yet altogether charming customs of the Japanese people and followed him out of the store.

So here I was. I had dirty laundry, a washer, coins to operate it, and no soap. A cursory inspection of the room showed no soap dispensers. The nearby vending machine didn’t carry any soap either. But something about the machine was… different. Cautiously, my wife and I loaded are clothes and fed the machine its metal biscuit. We waited in silence as the machine filled with water, and then, lo and behold, suds began to form!

That’s right, in Japan, the wash machines have their own soap.

We cheerfully loaded the other machine and again watched in stunned silence as it soaped itself. Who knows what else hides in Japanese technology? Would the dryer fold my clothes? Perhaps the elevator could sense what floor I wanted before I pressed a button. Alas, the adventure was over, and the rest of the clothing ritual proceeded as it would have in the states.

Thus is my existence in Japan. I get overly excited about the little things. Allow me to elaborate with an embarrassing anecdote.

First, I must explain: I had a professor in college who was obsessed with Japan. He had lived there for years, had a kid there, carried a float, the whole nine yards. He told us that people over there were obsessed with foreigners. Like if they see you on the street they’ll take your picture, that kind of thing. I’d read similar things in books. The word “gaijin,” which means foreign barbarian, is supposed to be thrown around quite a bit. So with all these outdated anecdotes swirling around my mind, we set out for Nagoya castle.

Nagoya Castle is unbelievably beautiful (check my instragram or google it if you don’t believe me). It’s not original, which means there’s such lovely conveniences inside like crappy air-conditioning and electric lights but the outside looks like something out of a samurai movie. The grounds themselves are surrounded in moats and 30 foot walls with trees growing on the tops of them that are older than my home town.

So here we are at Nagoya Castle, just generally being blown away by the beauty of it all. There’s tourists everywhere, snapping pictures, listening to tour guides, there’s even a reenactment of an ancient samurai battle taking place (I couldn’t tell you which battle because I only understand the Japanese you’d need in bars). Basically it’s glorious. If you ever visit Japan, something I, with my 5 days of experience, highly recommend, I would go see a castle your first day. They’re awe inspiring.

Anyways we’re there, taking in the sights, marveling at the history of the country, that kind of thing, when a particularly glorious sculpture catches my eye. Its of some Samurai, or Daimyo or something (again I have no idea because I don’t read Japanese). I start snapping pictures when this young Japanese man approaches us with a big grin on his face.

Ha! I laugh to myself, we haven’t even been off the plane 24 hours and already someone needs a picture of my red beard.

Sure enough, the young man asks if he can take our picture. I smile, nod graciously and share a wink with Raquel. Poor kid’s never seen a gaijin in his hometown. Must be nice, to get all excited about someone who looks a little different tromping around where he grew up.

Then my smile starts to fade. He’s holding out his hand, waiting for my camera. He was just being nice and offering to take our picture with the statue. I turned beat red, forced a smile for the camera (Raquel’s was genuine, believe me, she was laughing too hard for it not be) and tried not to be seem like a total fool. Turns out he wasn’t even from Nagoya, he was from Osaka, and was a tourist like us. But of course he was. Why else would a young man be hanging out at a tourist death trap like Nagoya Castle on Saturday afternoon?
We spent the rest of the day exploring the city. Not once did I hear the word gaijin, or have any strangers confront me (except when I needed help at the subway). I guess Japan’s different than what they say in the guidebooks, but they still have washing machines that add their own soap, and I have to stoop under every door.