Five Times The Pink Panther Accurately Summed Up What It’s Like Teaching English Abroad

And it looks like I’m staying for one final year in Japan. Two years was just the right amount of time to get my life sorted; unfortunately, I’m not quite ready to say good-bye just yet. It’s been a long road. It’s a longer one to come. The papers are signed, the decision made. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, JET 2016-2017.

A lot of my friends in the States have, at one point or another, expressed curiosity on what it’s like to teach English abroad. The myths and realities as expressed through the five times that The Pink Panther suddenly became too real for words…

1. WE DO NOT QUIT!!!

“Your life must be so glamorous, living abroad and teaching English to Japanese kids!” Glamorous is one word for it. And then there’s this…

…I do enjoy every minute of it even though I wouldn’t call it glamorous 😉

2. Why would they do something like that?

“I hear Japan is soooooo high tech! You must be going to all crazy-amazing robot conventions every weekend and never want to come back to the US, right?” The hard cold reality is…

…and not only that: my office is (somehow) still running on XP. Why would they do something like that?!

3. Why do you think they’re dressed like that? For fun?!

Doing anything for the kids on Halloween is basically along these lines. Also applies to generally trying to blend in with society when the clothes just look different on you than on the cute models (TTwTT)”

4. It is one of my specialties…

So, I can do things, I swear, I can! Sometimes, though, I can’t show them off perfectly because of cultural differences.

Can’t bake half the Viennese pastries I learned how to make because Japan and it’s non-baking culture. It’s still fun trying, though 😀

5. I thought you were ordering in Italian.

That moment when you suddenly become Vincenzo Roccara Squarcialupi Brancaleone at the local Starbucks… or anywhere, really.

Happy Friday, everyone!

Destination X

Wednesday’s are always a fun day. Everything from three-second rule gaffes during home economics to messy self portraits in art and, of course, English lessons. If there’s an opportunity for me to attend a workshop with the kids, I know within five minutes of entering the office. As far as JET experiences go, I wish more schools were like this. Especially since all the down time with the kids makes for greater trust once they graduate to the middle school, where I teach all levels.

So it was with a mixture of anticipation and amusement that I stood before my favorite sixth years. I’ve come to trust them in many ways: asking them to help me research local dialects spoken by their grandparents, taste testing food they’ve prepared solo, water balloon fights, recommendations for places to visit within the prefecture. Now, I was about to integrate a lesson with real world application…

“So we’ve learned a lot about other countries in this unit.”

A couple of shy yeses pop up like groundhogs in the spring. Mostly it’s quiet. I take a deep breath.

“Where should I go on my next vacation?”

“Eh?”

“Nani?”

Their teacher translates. They look back at me, half-amused and half shocked.

“I’ll go anywhere – except war zones – I’ll take pictures to show you and I’ll bring something back for everyone to see.”

Everyone reacts. “MAJI DE!”

This is the equivalent of NO WAY. Also sometimes translated as YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME and YOU’RE CRAZY.

“No, I’m 100% majiME (serious).” Luckily my lousy attempt at a pun goes unnoticed…

“France!”

“Egypt!”

“Brazil!”

“ISLAM!”

We do a 7 minute review on why Islam is not a country. And yet they’re still too enthusiastic, excited even, to pay attention.

“Okay, okay! How about next week we write down suggestions on a slip of paper and I’ll draw one from a box.”

“Maji.”

That seems to be the theme of this semester: crazy English, crazy adventures ;D

We’ll see how it goes but at the moment all we’ve decided is that this trip must take place by Silver Week 2016 and I must take many pictures with myself in front of famous places and bring something back.

The English Menu, or Why I Am A Horrible Human Being…

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“Hello. Welcome. Table for two.” A hand shows the number two visually.

“はい、二人です。”

We are seated. We reach for menus and peruse while the waiter waits, watches us silently for a few moments. We’ve started speaking only to each other, unaware that he is still there, and are taking our time pointing out options to each other. This is mistaken as ineptitude.

“English menu?” he helpfully materializes an English version of the laminate copy. Any other time, I would be grateful. But this is the fifth time at the same restaurant with the same waiter and it’s been a long, long day. I glance across the table where stormy eyes concur with unsaid words. I turn suddenly to the waiter.

“ああ、大丈夫。読める。” I make an attempt at informal Japanese to show I actually can speak informally as well. Dark eyes blink back, slightly confused but the English menu spirited away from sight. Believing, I have established all information we needed to continue with dinner, we peruse at our leisure. We speak of silly things and serious things, we laugh at inside jokes, pointing out delicious options.

Five minutes pass in this way, until the waiter returns with a pitcher of water in one hand and…

…the English menu in another.

My mind screams in horror long before I’ve caught up with it. The pitcher of water is set down and the English menu dropped on the table where it cannot be ignored. To my very core, I am frozen, a mixture of emotions.

Shock. Laughter. Confusion. Fury. Despair. I want to cry. I want to laugh. Mostly I want to have dinner for once in my life, with the full comprehension that I know what I’m doing with a Japanese menu in my hand. Powder and sparks and consuming kisses, iambic pentameter, the sound of the atom bomb tests, Beethoven’s explosive fifth symphony… I think in sound, I think primarily in music. It’s all going through my head at the speed of light and anger wins before the rest of the emotions can catch up.

That all takes a millisecond to process. A fraction of a breath. I bend over across the table laughing into the hard wood surface, my arms encircling my head because I’m afraid of what I may do if he’s still around when I look up. I wait until I’m absolutely sure he is no longer near us. I surface for air.

“That’s it. I’m going to order in keigo.”

“What. No.”

We “argue”, my dinner partner and I, bantering about how we shall order in absolutely perfect Japanese keigo (or not order in such a way until we leave for our road trip and know for a fact that our passive aggressive actions will never negatively impact us).

“No, you’re right that’s just too rude. But still. I really want to order in keigo.” Internally, I tell myself that I might just wear my Waseda sweat shirt next time I go in. A sweat shirt made for autumn weather worn in the middle of summer is sure to illicit some response. Any response to the fact that I may not speak like a native but I can very well order at a restaurant.

Once we are quite sure that we know what we will order, we push the magic button that calls our waiter over and I speed speak through my order to show I’m not going to stumble through the conversation, I even give an explanation for why I can’t eat rice (allergy) and if it would alright to substitute it for naan. It’s not perfect, because I did slip up that last bit of grammar but I made myself more than intelligible.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time. It’s a performance piece we repeat ad nauseum, at every restaurant, and it eventually takes its toll on your self-confidence as a JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) speaker. Deep down inside you may know you’ve done it right, you’ve grammar-ed and words-ed your way through the linguistic minefield of what may be the exact opposite of how your native tongue works, and yet you will be rejected by looks alone.

He walks away even more confused than before. A different waiter comes to deliver the food. I’m unsure whether it’s worked or not, but we’re getting curry one last time before Kimmy leaves so, the fruits of our labor will be made known to us then. I feel like a horrible human being, relishing in the satisfaction of having pulled passive aggression on anyone. There are not buts to that sentence. I let it stand as is.

When Will I Ever Use English? (Lesson Plan Included)

We’ve all been there before, from grade school to high school, and sometimes even I’m sad to admit, in college. We question the reason why anyone would want us to learn a certain subject that will most likely never be of use to us after the final exam. The fact that we spend so much time learning and so little on application is, perhaps, one of the greatest problems faced by all education systems around the world. And here in the inaka of Japan, where the majority of my kids will most likely go into their parents’ professions, it can be heartbreaking to come across gifted and talented kids who can’t be bothered to take an interest because they have little perceived use for English after graduating high school.

Though my kids have yet to blatantly ask me the “When will I ever use this?” question, it’s pretty clear from their eyes and ‘tudes that it’s a low priority subject for them. Oh, they humor me. Humor me, they do. But humoring isn’t quite the same as exploring/discovering. Recently a fellow JET colleague gave me the brilliant idea to use the website SendKidstheWorld.com to give my own kids a reason to care about using English and to see their own life in perspective.

Send Kids the World is a great website to connect terminally ill children with people from around the world via postcards. I selected Ashlynn from the many wonderful kids because she was roughly the same age as my junior high students and she had many of the same interests. Basically, when I arrived this morning my kids had no idea what I had in mind for them today. Let’s practice some grammar, she said last week. It’ll be fun, she said… last week.

*Insert victorious-you-shall-now-use-English-for-the-power-of-good-and-you-won’t-be-able-to-pretend-to-be-too-cool-for-school-after-today laugh* Teens around the world, eh?

Start with a warm up to get the brain cells going. Make the rows or columns (depending on your style and mood) play a quick round of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. The winners will answer the following questions: 1. What is your favorite (insert person/place/thing/hobby) in (insert prefecture or town)? But for the more advanced classes, I used natural speech: What is your favorite thing about your town? I also explained at the end of the warm up the reason why I asked them those particular questions. The grand reveal: dun-dun-dun!

After giving them as simple and brief of a description of Ashlynn’s life as I could, complete with a photograph that I placed on the backboard, I lectured a bit on writing letters and postcards. It helps to give the kids blank white sheets of paper where they can practice what they want to say. Though I did put up a template of what an average postcard may look like, I do advice allowing your kids to run wild. I let them tell Ashlynn whatever they wanted about Aomori and Japan, even if it meant that they just wanted to share about their life at school or home.

A couple of them were naturally skeptical, the didn’t believe that I would really send anything at all and that this was just one long exercise in grammatical theory, blah, blah, blah. And then I whipped out thirty-one post cards and spread them out on the teacher’s desk in the room. That’s when things got real. Post cards cost 150 yen a pop here. Thirty-one of them plus tax came to a round total of 5,022 yen. Or the equivalent of $50.22; trust me it’s worth it.

Suddenly, when they realized that this was happening for real, they were rushing to the blackboard, wanting to find out more about what her likes and dislikes were, about her birthday, and what she looked like. A lot of my kids took it to heart, their beautifully written postcards (which are now safely tucked away in my desk). We’re sending them out next week since only half the class was able to finish.

But for the tender-hearted teacher, beware: there’s always going to be a few who don’t really care one way or another. Best thing is to be patient with them and hope that years down the road they will remember this and look back on it as the one time they used English for a good purpose.

::BASIC POSTCARD TEMPLATE::

Hello (insert name of child), my name is (student’s name). I am from (country/prefecture). (Country) is famous for (insert famous item). (insert free style sentences on whatever kids want to write about). I believe in you!

Sincerely, (student’s name).

Depending on the level of the students’ English you can do any variation to reflect grammar being learned that day/week or to include higher level words. But more importantly, they’re doing a great thing for a kid in need. Emphasize the fact that it’s not about getting the grammar right or the words perfectly spelled. It’s about connecting with another human being, someone whom you may never have connected with before now. Because at the end of the day, that’s what English should be about: it should be about humanity, about meaningful connections, about using what is learned to do a good deed.

Cheers.

Hangman, the Art of Spelling

For all the 90s babies who remember what it was like to live in a decade without internet distractions or cell phones… And who remember having to play a good old round of Hangman to pass away the hours.

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Brought out this golden oldie for the junior high first years (who did not question the hanging man) and had a blast spelling out classics such as “SPAGHETTI” and stumping them with “GRAPES”.

Elementary kids on the other hand immediately called me out on the translation work…

Kids: “American kids actually play this?”

Me: “Uhhhhhhh YES :D”

Kids: “But it’s so mean!”

Me: “I never actually thought of it until now…”

Kids: “Stop hanging him, can’t you see it hurts?”

Me: “Then guess more vowels xD”

Kids: “Is Y a vowel?”

Me: “Sometimes”

Kids: o.O”

The best way to make this lesson plan work: after reviewing the alphabet and breaking them off into teams, allow younger children (elementary school age) to have a visual of the vocabulary open (textbook should be rife with illustrations and words).

The smart ones will start to count out the number of spaces. Once they get the feel for it erase the spaces for a blind version of Hangman. They won’t know how many spaces and the word will be slowly revealed for even greater suspense.

For more advanced classes, don’t reveal the word for them but leave the answered letter scrambled as they guess each letter. For example, if the word is “FISH” but they guess the letter in the following order: “IFHS” then leave it as is and offer double points for the team that unscrambles it first. Beware… POST & STOP are anagrams of each other.

And there you have it: Traditional Hangman and Blind Anagram Hangman all in one lesson.

Cheers!

If dreams and wishes were streams and fishes…

The kids (ages 10-14) are learning how to express what they want to be in the future. I’ve gotten some very interesting and specific occupations that probably would take their American peers by surprise:

OCCUPATIONS BY POPLUARITY

Soccer/baseball player

Pastry chef

Geriatric nurse

Carpenter

Nursery school teacher

Farmer

Gasoline stand attendant

Pianist

Teacher

Refinery worker

Dancer

Needless to say, their reasoning for choosing those jobs is above and beyond funny. It’s a real joy getting to know them week by week, assignment by assignment.

 

 

 

The Prefectures Bucket List

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I’m on a mission to visit every one of Japan’s 47 prefectures and its main islands. I have three years to complete my goal. I’m here already so I may as well make the most of my stay as a contributing-to-society adult with no permanent ties or responsibilities (apart from work, of course). It’s finally occurred to me that keeping track of where I’ve been and what I’ve done is of strategic, statistical, and demographic importance (silly me).

.:PREFECTURES VISITED:.

Hokkaido (Sapporo/Otaru, February 2015)

Miyagi (Sendai, December 2014)

Akita (Oga Peninsula, October 2014)

Aomori (August 2014-present)**

Tokyo (Tokyo City, September 2011 – July 2012 & July 2014)*

Kanagawa (Hakone, May 2012)

Kyoto (Kyoto City, March-April 2012)

Nara (Nara City, March-April 2012)

Hiroshima (Hiroshima City/Miyajima, March-April 2012)

Okinawa (February 2012)

Yamagata (Yamagata City, February 2012)

Okayama (New Year’s 2012)

Chiba (Disneyland, December 2011)

Tochigi (Nikkou, November 2011)

Nagano (Matsumoto Castle, September 2011)

😀

NEXT TRAVEL PLANS ON THE LIST

Aomori’s Greatest Hits and the Great Tokyo Escape (Kouchan visits Tohoku + Reunion with Waseda friends in Tokyo)

The Tohoku Triangle: Aomori-Akita-Iwate (Golden Week with the girls)

Osaka (sometime, maybe soon, maybe in another year)

Legend: (*) – lived and studied there; (**) – lived and worked there

A Portrait of a JET in Its Natural Habitat

According to my precocious 1st graders, I look like…

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The days are going much too fast. It’s as if, there’s nothing but waking and eating breakfast then planning for lessons, teaching the lesson and suddenly it’s lunchtime followed by cleaning and more lessons and kendo. Sometimes there’s kendo in the morning, too, and those are the busiest days.

Thankfully it’s going to be a slow weekend this time. I’ll probably finally get Skype time with my parents. The first in nearly two weeks. In fact I’m going to schedule that now… Not now… In a couple hours when it’s not 4am in California. Anyway. I digress…