Category Archives: Teaching Abroad

Fluently Worrying

In my daily life I think a lot about language. How to use the Japanese language correctly, my choice of vocabulary and grammar when addressing my students in English, my use of tone and expression, the physicality of my language, it all gets thrown together in a jumbled mess of simplified English and broken Japanese.

The thing is, this mess needs to convey an idea that doesn’t come naturally to most people and certainly not to Japanese teenagers.

The idea that in order to learn a language you have to not only be unafraid of making mistakes but care enough to want to fix those very same mistakes.

It’s a difficult balance.

One thing I don’t do is sugarcoat it. I don’t pretend that what they’re studying is easy, that it has a sense of logic that they ought to be able to grasp easily. Language doesn’t work like that and a language born of so many people and cultures as English is a hodgepodge.

More than that it’s a sadistic, cacophonous, beautiful, shambles of a language.

And I love it for it.

However, for teenagers this cluttered lingua franca is encountered in an environment where the wrong answer is to be feared because a wrong answer symbolizes more than, ‘I don’t know right now,’ it often feels like it means, like it displays to the entire room, ‘I will never know the right answer.’

I can remember that feeling well from High School French or Spanish classes where we were dragged through a textbook kicking and screaming, ticking boxes and attempting to build on linguistic steps when the foundations hadn’t fully dried yet.

If you take a quick ride on any train in Japan it would be abundantly clear that this kind of feeling continues to linger on long into adult life here. Dotted around every carriage are advertisements for an endless variety of English conversation schools promising to improve an obviously faltering and feeble grasp of the English language.

If I could change one thing about Japan it’d be these blasted adverts. I’d replace them with ones that say,

English is hard. It is not impossible. It takes at least three thousand hours of regular study for a native speaker of a non-European language to reach an advanced level. Please stop worrying and enjoy your day.

Better yet, what’s the Japanese for Keep Calm and Carry On?

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The Japanese and English Cuisine

All this nonsense talk of micro-aggressions and flyjins that hovers about the Internet is nothing but a shallow distraction, a bit of rubbish that shifts attention from the truly awful, the god honest hatred for one thing that runs through Japanese society.

I encounter the disdain, the condescending smile, the knowing looks and pitying glances often in my working life. The respect I’m usually afforded as a teacher despite my few years is replaced by a little chuckle and my immediate relegation from senior or equal figure to foolish foreigner, ignorant visitor to these lands.

I try to laugh it off. I dismiss it as ignorance and not to be taken seriously. In my line of work you really ought to believe that you can educate individuals away from such unworldly views.

Yet, it’s no use. This is a nation reared on a televisual journey through the hinterlands of travel and haute cuisine. Every evening, nay every moment of the day that the TV illuminates the corner of the apartment it acts like some neon kami (Japanese for god), a tiny bacchanalian Buddha and pretentious prophet all rolled into one as it dispenses its unquestionable wisdom to the masses.

And what does it teach this culinary cult, these devotees of sofa-based exploration?

That not only is Japan the home of the world’s greatest cuisine but that it finds its perfect antithesis in where I call home; England.

Perhaps the humble fish and chips, or fishuandochipusu as it’s known here, is an exception to this rule such is its place on so many bar menus but the rest of my home nations culinary output might as well be poured down the drain the moment we’ve finished over cooking it.

My tongue now having thoroughly bore its way through my cheek I really ought to discuss where this seemingly globally accepted view actually comes from.

While the TV may be the purveyor of the accepted wisdom, it undoubtedly is entrenched enough now that very little could change Japanese minds.  It’s out there, as true to the Japanese as the strike happy, surrender quickly nature of the French is to the English. We don’t always believe it is true, but we certainly enjoy acting like it is.

However, in my opinion, away from Japanese TV there is a simpler geographical reason for this perspective.

Train stations.

Train stations in Japan are the epicenter. They are at the heart of the city. Everything emanates from that point and the better a thing is, the more likely it is to be on the doorstep of the station.

In Kyoto station there is an entire floor devoted to the art of Ramen. Beneath almost every major city station in Japan there seems to be a food court. Walk out of any train station in Japan (except for seriously countryside places) and you will almost certainly discover a decent number of rather good restaurants right in front of you.

Compare that to the train station in London I used to live nearby, Paddington and the contrasts are pretty stark. Directly opposite the main entrance at the crossroads by the Hilton Hotel sits the following; a Burger King, a KFC, a McDonalds, a Garfunkel’s and an Aberdeen Steak House.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fast food, it does exactly what it says on the tin, if you can’t hold back from the desire to stuff your face with it well that’s your issue, but fine dining it is not. Two minutes past this cavalcade of calorific confidence men sit yet another crappy steak restaurant and two ‘traditional’ English pubs. These pubs however are no fair reflection of British or English cuisine anymore than Kappa Sushi ought to be considered Kaiseki Ryori in Japan (as goodandbadjapan recently noted on his blog – always a wonderful read).

Yet, if you venture a further two minutes down that very same street you’ll come across The Victoria Pub. It’s a beautiful place, has genuinely good food and an ambiance that Hub Pub’s across Tokyo would kill to replicate. Around the corner from that is the Mitre, yet another fine example of a good English Pub. That both happened to be my locals for a short time in my life is something I will always be grateful for.

In reality if anything in England might find its antithesis in Japan it certainly isn’t food, it’s urban planning.

Unfortunately the simple hint, walk five minutes more, isn’t in any guidobuku I’ve ever seen. However, I’ve been correcting this one globetrotting student at a time and bit by bit I think it’s starting to work.

All this is really just my way of saying, if you work in either of the lovely pubs I just mentioned and have been very politely, if quite forcefully cajoled into posing for photographs with some very nice Japanese ladies thoroughly enjoying their holidays, then thank you. You have by plate and by pint managed what I never could; you got them to disagree with the TV.

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Handily Divine

As the shinkansen flashes by on the parallel bridge, a bullet blur humming and thumping like a taiko drum as it bursts forth from the tunnel I take a deep breath and smile, soak it all in. A clear night’s sky, a cool breeze whipping over the bridge and across the rice paddies below, drifting presumably upwards and towards the heaven like burst of light on the hillside that is otherwise known as the Gorilla Golf Centre. That bright beacon of Japanese culture nestled in small valleys and hillsides around Japan. A porch light to a nation of golfing moths.

After the first experience I had with it, I never expected that so shortly after I’d find myself feeling thankful towards it, even impressed by its speed, efficiency and ability.

Oh Japanese health system, who knew you had it in you to be those things?

Thanks to you I get to enjoy a part of Japan that had eluded me before. The beauty of the countryside and the city as I jog, amble, stumble and sweat up and down hills, across bridges and beside rice fields. Occasionally scaring the bejesus out of poor folks as a sweaty foreigner rounds the corner at the exact same instant. Getting them a second time by declaring my surprise in Japanese.

In stark contrast to my first experience of medical treatment going to get my knee fixed couldn’t have been simpler. After a few weeks where my lifelong dodgy knee, a family trait, had begun to play up far more than usual, (walking and driving, two things that had never affected me before made my old man knee flare up all of a sudden) I decided it was about time I got it properly checked out, rather than accepting the family defect for what it was.

So after strolling into the appropriate local hospital (Japan’s smaller establishments are separated by discipline so to some extent you have to diagnose yourself) ostensibly just to make an appointment, I was passing and it’d be easier than doing it by phone with my middling Japanese, I soon found myself snuck into the one gap in the day’s appointment list.

An hour later I found myself in the first doctors office where he recommended an X-ray to check this troublesome knee as well my back. I sighed. This story occured during my last job, one where free time was at a premium. Getting to this local hospital was a logistical nightmare that minus a car involved an hour and a half hour of travel by train and foot. The thought of trekking back and forth for tests didn’t appeal.

The doctor looked puzzled.

“Nah, we’ll do it now. Down the hall on the left.”

Outside an accident and emergency room in the UK this almost never happens.

So… two scans later.

“Your knee is fine.”

“Huh!”

“Your back however… this X-ray shows a normal spine, this is yours. It’s very straight and tight. It’s the source of your pain.”

Two minutes of massage later and my pain magically disappeared.

I asked, “What’s magic in Japanese?”

“Noooo.” He replied, “God hands!”

When Aliens Try to Poke Aliens: How to survive a trip to the hospital in Japan

The face goes blank, the eyes widen and an arm stretches out, index finger leading as if to greet ET. He’s slipped into automated curiosity, an autopilot for exploring the world around him, activated by the presence of anything new or out of the ordinary. At five years old that’s pretty much everything he sees. Under normal circumstances it’s a good thing. A biological imperative to learn, develop and understand the world around him. Today, for me, that’s a problem. Today I have a fresh scar on my neck concealed beneath a large white bandage that might as well be a giant red button and he’s heading straight for it.

Perhaps I should explain how I got here. About a month before that kids finger began to make a beeline for some very tender and fresh scar tissue I was sitting in the Doctor’s office in a small clinic at the heart of the Izu Peninsula. What had brought me here was my third cold of the year. I teach at a day care centre, catching a cold every couple months is pretty much a quarterly contractual obligation, so usually nothing to write home about. Except in this case it had had something of a knock on effect. It had caused a small epidermal cyst in my neck to double in size and so I made my journey to the heart of Izu, to this tiny rather ramshackle clinic, to begin my guided tour through the Japanese health service.

Alongside me in that room, aside from myself, my friend and the doctor were a pharmacist, another patient behind a curtain and three nurses whose sole job appeared to be smiling at me with their heads at a jaunty yet unthreatening thirty-five degree angle. In smaller towns, where the tone of your skin is liable to make you something of a B-list celebrity, it’s perhaps better to forget all thoughts of privacy.

Well-worn cliché number one, Japanese people stare at foreigners, now attended to we move onto number two; the notoriously low English level of the Japanese. How low? Well, my first Doctor’s professional thoughts as to my treatment were that,

“Considering the language difficulty, I recommend you go home.”

Hardly what you want to hear when you’re speaking to a doctor. Especially so when a return trip home is liable to set you back a thousand pounds and result in the loss of your job by your absence. Particularly when you are legally obliged to pay into the very health system that has just decided to inform you, in Japanese, that even though you have barely uttered a word of English to the doctor, that despite turning up with a Japanese friend willing to translate for you, that the doctor’s phobia of the English language is so great you ought to consider repatriation.

Having ignored this advice and moved onto a larger hospital, with a letter of recommendation from the first Doc (she was freaked out by English, not unprofessional), I’ve since made it out of the Japanese health system alive and well. Aside from the suggestion of flying over two thousands back home for a minor medical ailment, I’ve had a positive if somewhat complicated experience. So here’s some advice for those who’ve yet to venture down the red tape, rabbit hole.

Work on your Kanji

Let’s face it, Kanji (Chinese characters) is hard. Not impossible, but reaching the level of competency required to understand medical Japanese is going to be pretty far in your future. So if you live outside of any major metropolitan area in Japan and your Japanese isn’t fully up to scratch you’re going need a native speaking friend or co-worker to help guide you through all this, because while foreigners in Japan are legally obliged to pay into the national health insurance scheme there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of English, Portuguese or Chinese language help. No one is looking for an on call translator, but the odd bit of multi-lingual paperwork would be helpful.

That Japan has only recently introduced full time translators to its major airports would suggest that help for those who haven’t mastered their Japanese quite yet might be some time coming. An ethnic Japanese population of around 98% might suggest it might not even arrive at all.

Generational Issues

The one thing I really wasn’t expecting, aside from the suggestion I get my minor ailment treated back in England to save on language difficulties, was how much my ability to understand my doctor’s Japanese would change from person to person.

My first Doctor, age fifty something, 70% understanding.

My second Doctor, age thirty something, 80% understanding.

My third Doctor, twenty something… 0%.

Take a moment to consider how you, your parents and your grandparents speak. Same language but great, impossibly deep chasms can separate the young from the old in terms of syntax and phrasing.

In this case my third Doctor sounded like she majored in cuteness at Hello Kitty University. Her conversation may have been peppered with the cute linguistic, idiosyncrasies of the young in a country obsessed by all things, ‘Kawaii’ (Japanese for cute), but there is something quite disturbing in having someone who could voice a Muppet inform you of the length of the scar you’re about to receive.

Even more staring than usual

Whatever your problem is, pray it isn’t sexual or highly visible. Particularly if like many English speaking foreigners working in Japan you’re a teacher. Because your students are going to ask what’s wrong, your colleagues will ask what’s wrong and then your boss will.

If it’s visible, as the bandage on my neck was, prepare to be stared at even more than usual.

This place is not designed for the likes of you

No not foreigners, though we certainly aren’t at the top of the list of people to consider. I mean anyone under sixty-five. When I arrived in the waiting room of a hospital early one morning, ticket stub in hand to wait for my turn with the doctor, I realized that at precisely eight in the morning I was the only person below retirement age in an utterly jam-packed waiting room.

There’s a fairly simple reason for this phenomenon in my inaka (countryside) hospital; you can’t make appointments or advanced reservations. It’s first come first served and the old folks are up and waiting outside that doctor’s door at six a.m. on the dot. All this despite the fact that that doctor’s door will not open until exactly eight a.m.

And finally, for those who teach… have cat like reflexes

I teach at a day care centre once a week. It has its up and downsides. Upside, enthusiastic, endlessly entertaining kids. Downside, they don’t know what personal space is. Nor are their social skills too refined by age five.

As such when entering a classroom I got a, “ Hello Masshu (my name once Japanafied) Sen…. ehhh.” That final ‘ehhh’ was delivered with a pretty impressive synchronized head tilt and thirty little faces that screamed, why the hell is there a bandage on your neck!

But this isn’t sympathy, it’s curiosity and while this kind of curiosity is unlikely to lead you to such a fate as enjoyed by overly inquisitive felines it is liable to attempt to jab you wherever it hurts.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing though, considering where they usually try to poke you.

A Mere Puppet

I see it coming, bathed in a gloopy, sticky mix of snot and spit, that one year old hand reaching out to brush my fur. That toothless smile, cute to everyone but me, wrapped in a onesie picked out by someone whose interpretation of cuteness by dint of biology doesn’t extend to realizing their own spawn looks like a toothless carnie on an opium trip.

My only glimpse of freedom once a week and it’s spent being thrust, nose first into the path of a mumbling pup. These infants that lack the dexterity to even muster a thumbs up, clutch at my fur, tear at my plastic eyes all the while my owner has his thumbs and fingers directing my arms from the inside.

I’m nothing but a cheap, Chinese manufactured pawn.

One can’t help where one is, ‘made in.’

Look at how simply they bumble the basics of this tongue that I have mastered without even the necessary appendage. They stare in wonder as I command the English language with the energy and clarity of a young Oxbridge gent. Words slide from my maw with such ease that one might even question the need for a tongue or voice box when perhaps all one might need is a squeaker.

I don’t suffer alone. My kind can be found in plastic boxes far and wide, stuffed in the back of cupboards; forgotten and at peace in the dark of a bin liner in the attic if providence has shined on them.

My companion in this macabre tale is a yellow-feathered fowl hailing from the Americas. He claims to know of the green frog I so revere. Says he is friends with him even. He doesn’t fool me, his name betrayed by the irony of his meagre stature. His delusions I can forgive though. He has lived this life longer than I, born the brunt of mucus coated fingers and thumbs, the incessant and painful wail of their collective greeting.

Haaaa-rooo

I feel shame that I cannot even begin to describe at this existence. I bring happiness but at what cost to myself? The very stuff that makes me me (my stuffing), is slipping away day by day.

Soon I’ll be an empty shell, fit for nothing but the storage of pajamas, a hot water bottle cozy if I’m one of the lucky ones.

I doubt I shall be lucky enough to feel warmth beneath my fur again; this life has left me cold. I’d rather throw myself to the pre-schoolers and let them tear me limb from once fluffy limb.

Alas, I fear this frightful charade shall continue until my jailer sees fit to throw me to the recycling van or leave me to the elements.

A  puppet can pray, can it not?

Just Because: The Eloquent Misuse

“How can I refuse, such an eloquent misuse of a phrase.” Idlewild

I always thought that it would creep up on me like a slightly balding panther, stealthily, sneaking, claws primed to strike and slash away a crop of young, thick hair from my growing brow. Growing brow, I prefer that phrase to gradually receding hairline. It proffers more of a sense of victory than the defeatist linguistic equivalents of retreat.

Yes, there was always going to be a point of no return when it came to turning into my father. I figured in my teenage years that it would be the day I finally received the sort of hairline that the Japanese playfully refer to as resembling Mt. Fuji. Inevitably the attack arrived, but as it turned out, my father’s influence on me has shorn through linguistically rather than in a follicle sense.

Well so far at least.

It is a phrase wielded with ease by parents everywhere when the exhaustion of offering yet another explanation is too much to bear. At other times it’s just the quickest way of stating that something ‘is’ and won’t be changing simply because your adolescent mind is unable to fathom that the logic at work isn’t about to shift at your request.

“Because.”

Children have daily experience with, “because,” adults; not so much. As such, explaining this concept to an adult requires a touch more finesse. Sometimes I can offer a reason for a way of phrasing something and other times the mind simply boggles and I have to um, ahh, well, etooo (Japanese for um) and anoooo (Japanese for ahh) my way through a thicket of hedging to reach my point.

That point being, that I’m afraid it’s just the way it is. We ride on a train, on a bus and in a car. I know how ridiculous it sounds to a foreign listener and I sympathize but even if I knew the etymology of every jumbled bit of English language I can’t always translate it into Japanese. Even if I could I probably can’t tell you why most of the time because even linguists haven’t the faintest.

Inevitably, the final roadblock is socialization. All those times that everyone is told “because” in his or her youth has only served to hardwire in a certain fashion of thinking. So when that hardwiring comes into contact with the ancient foundations of a language, itself a tangle of roots and branches long untouched by a gardener, well it has a little problem coping sometimes.

In practical terms there is such a thing as correct way to say something, yet the nebulous nature of language means that it may not always remain that way. The beauty of language is that it is alive, it evolves and adjusts to its surroundings, bends and flexes in delightful new ways that thrill the poet and leave the pedant aghast; often one and the same person.

Sadly, many of my students tend to fall into one category or the other when they are dealing with English. I have students of all levels who take great delight in the peculiar logic behind idioms. Others who question why they simply can’t lean on their stock phrases for every situation.

In these cases my decision to tell them “because” comes down to the degree to which their freedom with, or lack of interest in the nuance, of the English language is likely to lead them into trouble or embarrassment.

Now, English, unlike Japanese, is an international language. As much as it may pain me to say it, it does not belong to England. It left home long ago and has grown up perfectly fine without its parent leaning over its shoulder. So I try to tell my more advanced students not to worry, that their phrasing, so long as their meaning is clear is perfectly valid, it’s their English and they can use it generally speaking, however they like.

Then a different problem rears its head,

“But teacher, we want to say it like a native speaker!”

 

 

Sentimental Sake:The Perils of a Late Night Beer Run

Every time I buy beer at precisely 9:55 in the evening I feel nostalgic, almost wistful. I begin to think about all the things I’ve done with my life, the myriad of things I’ve dreamt about that I haven’t even begun to get close to.

I start to plan and plot the months and years ahead. I make promises to myself. I challenge myself to do more with my time here in Japan, to take risks, travel and throw myself into the culture, to spend my money on something innately Japanese, to save more money for the day I eventually go back to England.

All these things pile up around my head as I make my way to the checkout, hand over my points card (it’s the second Japanese economy), exchange pleasantries with the staff who now know my face well enough to smile and bow from three tills away, hand over my cash, drop the six pack of Japanese lager into my reusable shopping bag and make my way to do the door wondering why all Japanese supermarkets have to play the tune of ‘Old Lang Syne’ at closing time.

Then I open my first can and forget every single resolution I just made in the ten minutes it took me to walk to the supermarket and back for a few beers after work.

Until the next time I’m greeted by an alcohol free fridge at least…