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The Uni-Files - Amusement/Fiction Archive

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

March 25, 2010

ESS- How Tomoyuki lost his groove

(The following is a bit o’ fiction based on a series of real incidents, sewn together with a bit of -ahem- artistic license. The way in which peoples’ good intentions get misinterpreted and misdirected in a foreign language, and ultimately leads to tension and frustration, is an interesting topic for me)

There it was near the bottom of the list of clubs. ESS- English Speaking Society. Tomoyuki liked the sound of that. It had an air of sophistication and worldliness about it. Coming from a small provincial town Tomoyuki couldn’t really think of himself as a man of ‘society’, especially since until this April he had focused almost solely on the university entrance exam. But now, having entered a prestigious university in a bigger city he felt eager to shake off his provincialism and perhaps joining ESS was the way to start.

Ryota, the only other student from his high school to have entered the same university, tried to convince Tomoyuki to join him in the tennis club. “The seniors seem cool, there are lots of social events, and there are some freshman hotties who are managers”. But while Ryota was more of a sports and party guy, Tomoyuki yearned to be erudite and sophisticated. And joining ESS at the university was his first-stage ticket.

Although he knew that his high school English classes had not really been practical, despite Fukushima sensei’s attempts to give them life and relevance and the occasional visit from an ALT from Kenya (to whom Tomoyuki was one of the few to listen with rapt attention and respond to), he had scored well on the exams and felt that he had a better overall grasp of English than most of his classmates, who seemed to only be able to produce individual words or set phrases.

He arrived several minutes early for the first ESS meeting, eager to show his interest. A few students were already there, one or two faces he recognized as other freshmen from orientation, plus a sprinkling of those who were clearly seniors. He nodded at the few familiar faces but kept his head down. One older guy had a notably casual, almost arrogant, air about him. Legs stretched out forward, crossed at the ankles, a little too relaxed.

They’ll probably ask me to introduce myself in English, Tomoyuki thought, and started practicing the mantra in his head. Just as his brain was weighing up "come from" vs. "came from" he heard English chatter coming down the hall towards the ESS room.

The foreign teacher who led ESS, was Goertzen. Tomoyuki remembered the name from the class schedule distributed just the day before. He assumed Goertzen would start by introducing himself and welcoming everyone in English but instead Goertzen strode in chatting amiably in English with a female student as if they were on a private date. Somehow, that cavalier approach made Tomoyuki feel uneasy, as did the fact that the girl crossed her legs when she sat down.

But wait a second, he thought, the girl is good. I bet she’s a returnee- that’s why she’s so fluent. He heard her call the teacher "Dave". OK, Tomoyuki thought, foreigners are usually rather informal with each other, but this seemed to be overly familiar to him. It was almost as if the girl was saying, “I’m not one of you, I’m an English speaker”. OK, maybe you’re just feeling jealous because she’s fluent, he thought. After all, wouldn’t you like to be able to communicate in English with that degree of confidence and control?

Goertzen began. “Today Kanako, a fourth year student, will lead us. But feel free to speak at anytime. And relax!”

Relax, on my first day, yeah right! How long has this guy been in Japan? Then Kanako began to speak, just a little faster than Tomoyuki could follow comfortably, her chirpy banter filled with "yeahs" and "wannas". OK- tone it down already Ms. Returnee he thought, and then realized he hadn’t been paying much attention to what she was saying.

As fate would have it, she called on him first. A self-introduction is natural at this point, he thought. “My name is Sakai Tomoyuki, Tomoyuki Sakai” he blurted out, correcting the name order to suit the English style. “Sorry, what was that”? Goertzen butted in. What was what? Tomoyuki’s mind raced. “It’s my name”, he said. What did you think it was? “Tomoyuki Sakai” Kanako concluded with an air of finality, and fixed him with a look that was either of encouragement and compassion or condescension and pity. Tomoyuki assumed it was the latter.

Just as he was about to continue, Kanako asked him something else, ending in the word ‘from’. What? He wanted to check what her question had been. “My hometown?” he asked, but realized that his intonation was flat and that it had come out like a statement instead: “Where are you from?” “My hometown!” Duh!

He wanted to smack himself in the head. Kanako flashed him that look of pity again. A few other students shifted uncomfortably. Goertzen spoke up. “Well of course you come from your hometown. We all do. But where is your hometown?” There were a few chuckles, especially from Mr. Casual. Goertzen did nothing to discourage them. Tomoyuki felt his cheeks burning and answered, but in his lingering embarrassment the discussion that followed completely eluded him.

When he re-focused, the topic had changed and Goertzen was now saying something about “…six years of high school English …you can’t speak English yet.” Tomoyuki was angered by this. Why don’t we speak English?! Because this is Japan! Are we expected to suddenly change our national language after high school? Was Goertzen one of those arrogant foreigners who thought that Japanese people were somehow obligated to speak English, and who thought that people who didn’t speak English well were less than himself? Tomoyuki didn’t think of himself as being particularly nationalistic but now he felt that part of himself burning and thought he might redeem his earlier awkwardness by volunteering an answer to this question. Foreigners speak directly, he thought, so I will too.

“Because here is Japan!” he blurted out, inadvertently pointing to his nose. “I know this is Japan.” Goertzen looked a bit exasperated. “I just wanted to know how and why the English system here has failed the students!” Who said I failed English? Tomoyuki thought. I actually had one of the highest English scores in my high school! Was this arrogant gaijin already judging him?

“Ba chew wanna get better at English, yeah?” Kanako chimed in. “Yes. I want to be”, he responded. Then he realized that English verbs usually require objects. “It”, he added awkwardly several seconds later. “I want to be… it”. He saw Mr. Casual sigh and ostentatiously check his cell phone.

Tomoyuki wanted to smack himself again. Every twelve-year old in Japan can say, “I want to become good at English” and here he had messed up even this, the simplest of English sentences. He felt his cheeks burning again, kept his head down, and checked his watch.

Tomoyuki ran into Ryota in the passageway later that day. “How was that English thing you went to” “OK, I guess” “Any hotties? “I didn’t notice” “There’s still room for freshmen in the tennis club!” Tennis sounded good to Tomoyuki.

After the ESS meeting, Goertzen was chatting with Kanako in his office. “I’m not sure why that Tomoyuki guy came to ESS today. He didn’t seem interested in English and was even a little hostile. And he can’t speak it at all although I suppose that ESS can help him get a bit better”

“Well he’s a small town boy,” Kanako responded, “I tried to be nice and help him but he just seemed, well, awkward. He doesn’t know how to interact with people like us. Sometimes I pity people like that”.

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June 15, 2010

Introducing Jiro (cheers) and Taro (hiss)

Oldtimers here may remember an early David Letterman segment called ‘Fred and Frank’ in which contrasting examples were given of the angelic Fred and diabolical Frank in various situations. Having been teaching EFL in Japan since the bubble days I think I can do the same regarding my students, so instead of Fred and Frank, let me introduce Jiro and Taro:

When Jiro greets you in the hall he says ‘Hi’ and nods his head with a smile. When Taro meets you in the hall he ignores you until he has just passed you and then says in his best goofball voice, “Harro!” and then chuckles about it to his buddies.

When Jiro sneezes in class he discreetly covers his face, turns away, and tries to minimize the force. When Taro sneezes in class, not only does it come out like a threat, but he also looks around the classroom upon completion to make sure that everyone else enjoyed it as much as he did. Droplets litter his desk and the hair of the girl who sits in front of him.

When Jiro presents his homework assignment it comes in a clear file with A4 sheets pinned together, his work typed and double-spaced. Taro’s assignment is written on the back side of a page torn out of a manga and appears to have been written in crayon. He signs it ‘Talo’. There are droplets on it.

Jiro lists his hobbies as “badminton, drama, foreign travel, and learning Korean”. Taro lists his as “sleping” (sic).

When you enter the classroom and ask students to take out the print from last week’s class Jiro already has it placed on his desk. Taro holds up what appears to be a scrap paper from last year’s German class and asks, “Kore?” (This?)

When you call on Jiro to answer a question and he doesn’t know, he quickly and clearly responds, “Sorry. I'm not sure”. When you ask Taro the same question he looks at you as if you’ve just arrived from the Planet Fungus, then looks at another student and says, “Ehh?”.

When you assign partners Jiro immediately goes to the partner, greets her, and rearranges his desk accordingly. When you assign Taro a partner, he doesn’t remember who you partnered him with and stays put in his seat until that unfortunate soul finally comes over to him. Then he says, “Ehh?”

When you announce that a test will be held in two weeks based upon textbook pages 15-30, Jiro makes a note and marks the relevant sections. Taro looks over at another student’s textbook and says, “Kyoukasho arun kai?” (Do we have a textbook?)

When Jiro comes in late he discreetly and quietly takes a seat at the back and then apologizes profusely because ‘I had a car accident’. You then see the fresh stitching in his shoulder. When Taro comes in late it is always during the listening exercise, where he bangs his stuff down ostentatiously on his desk, and loudly proclaims “tsukareta” (I’m bushed) to no one in particular before yawning. He then turns to another student (who is intent on listening to the recording) and asks what’s going on.

Later, you find out that Taro caused Jiro’s accident because Taro was ‘sleping’ at the wheel.

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October 26, 2010

Two items: 1. Nobel Prizes, Research and REAL WORK 2. How to avoid a test (and fail!)

Two mini-posts today…

1. Nobel prizes, the office concept, and research in Japan

Much was made in Japan of Prof. Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido Univ. being awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. There is no doubt that Nobel Prizes provide a boost for national egos, even if the winner is usually more a product of individual genius that a product of that society. Oddly though, when a Japanese academic wins a Nobel prize it is usually accompanied by an equal amount of hand-wringing about shortcomings in the nation’s educational and research environments.

I say 'oddly' because you’d think that achieving the ultimate academic recognition would serve as a vindication of an educational system but not in Japan. One reason is that co-winner Eichi Negishi is based at the U. of Chicago and has been so for almost all of his research career (and he is not the first Japanese researcher who has been able to flourish abroad and be critical of research setting in his country of birth).

The criticism is that university research institutes in Japan are static and rigid. That there is a stifling hierarchy which discourages the type of open environment necessary for innovation and success (although I would argue that most countries would like to have Japan’s –ahem- lack of academic/innovative success).

Not working in a research lab I cannot confirm all of this firsthand but the fact that even young Japanese researchers (among them some that I’ve met on my own campus) seem discouraged certainly lends some credence to the notion. But I’d like to raise another factor that inhibits the pursuit of excellence in almost all of Japanese educational institutions but is rarely mentioned as a factor....

OK. When you think of the term “Japanese worker” what comes to mind? The guy in the blue suit who sits at a cubicle (or a shared table) in a company office 8AM-8PM, right? Mr. Salaryman (or Ms. OL in the case of women). This seems to be the set model for ‘working’ in Japan. Therefore, if you are not somehow engaging in office work of some sort you are not really working.

Now you might think that primarily teachers should teach, doctors should treat patients, and researchers should do research, right? And perhaps the occasional bit of paper work might come their way for inputting grades and the like. But not in Japan.

An enormous amount of my working time, concentration, and effort is taken up by requests from various offices in the university. Elaborate questionnaires have to be filled in, meaningless committees have to write vapid reports, databases are changed and have to be re-inputted, the Student Affairs bureau wants you to keep a record of student visits to your office and the purposes thereof- I could go on and on but you get the point. It seems like almost everyday the secretary comes to me with something to fill out, prepare, input, or comment on.

To be perfectly honest, I've come to feel that if I read an academic book on EFL in my office for more than 5 minutes I’m screwing around, indulging in a personal hobby. If I work on an academic paper on my computer I’m somehow cheating the university time-wise. Help! They’ve gotten to me!

I often get the impression that administrative office staff thinks that if we are not on our actual teaching contract hours that we aren’t really working and therefore have to fill our idle hands with some nefarious tasks to legitimize receiving our paychecks. And yes, I have heard researchers here claim the same thing- that they are always busy with ‘zatsuyo’ (paper work) and thus are forced to delay the very research that the ‘zatsuyo’ is based upon or work until the wee hours. The surrounding, peripheral work has supplanted the real work. It seems that the most important thing is to dance through the hoops created by someone in the office downstairs, not to produce actual research of worth. Your research could be total crap and you'd still be rewarded for it as long as you completed your online 'Research Report- reflective imprssions of the allotted travel funds section' correctly. And only in 12 MS font.

As I work next to an attached hospital (plus the fact that my wife is an MD) I know that this afflicts doctors (and nurses) too. Doctors complain of rushing patient visits in order to complete the pre and post visit paper requirements, which are ever increasing, demanded by the paper pervert powers in those dusty cubicles.

Maybe this is why research is usually more practical and productive at Japanese companies than at universities. The expectation inside a company seems to be that office workers do office work and the lab people stay in the lab and there are a sufficient number of clerks and secretarial go-betweens to bridge the two. Less so for universities and hospitals. Secretaries and clerks have their roles here to be sure, but the more they do on behalf of the teaching/research staff, the more the bureaus downstairs make up because- well we have to do some real work, right? And real work of course means filling in online forms and shuffling more and more papers…

2. How to avoid a test: An almost true account of where my class apparently ranks in the student life hierarchy

(Setting- My classroom with 32 2nd year English communication students)

Me: OK. Next week we’ll start the role-play tests based on what we’ve been working on over the last five weeks. You’ll be doing the role-play in pairs- 12 minutes per pair. Even numbered students will come next week, odd numbered students the week after.

Everybody: Ehhhhh!!??

Me: What do you mean, ehhhh???!!! It’s a university. We have tests here, right?

Yamada: But we have a test the day right after that in Anatomy! We have to study hard for it!

Me: Perhaps then you should ask the anatomy teacher to postpone his test- because you have an English test the day before and you have to study for that!

Watanabe: But it’s not fair because the students like me who come next week have the anatomy test as well as your test, but the students who come in two weeks don’t!

Sato: But it’s not fair for students like me who come in two weeks either!

Me: Ummm, why not Sato?

Sato: The rugby team is playing a tournament that weekend and we have practices!

Me: You don’t have practices Thursday morning, when our test is held!

Kobayashi: But we’re having a drinking party on Wednesday night to celebrate the tournament.

Me: Now why on earth did you schedule a drinking party on a weeknight?!

Hayashi: Our club seniors decided. So we have to go, and then we won't be able to study for your test. Plus it’ll be hard to get up in the morning for this class!

Me: Well that’s a choice you make. Please your seniors or get a failing grade on the test.

Suzuki: Give the test in three weeks! It’s better!

Yamamoto: No way! In three weeks the orchestra is doing a concert the day after English class and we in the orchestra have to focus on that. I may have to miss English that day anyway to set up seats in the concert hall.

Me: If I listened to you guys we would never have a test at all. Or even classes for that matter.

Setoguchi: Why don’t you do the tests in the final test season, like other teachers?

Me: Because it’s not suited to two weeks of role-play testing AND I can’t give you proper feedback. Plus, we use ongoing evaluation in English class. It's not just a pile of knowledge that we’re testing.

Abe: Yeah, Setoguchi, shut up! If we had the test in the usual testing season we couldn’t study for it anyway because we have three other tests scheduled then. So we wouldn’t be able to study for the English test at all.

Me: All right. I hear you. The only solution it seems is to do the test right here, right now in the next 30 minutes. Take out one pen and one piece of paper everyone. Here we go. This test, or should I say pop quiz, will account for 60 percent of your grade. Good luck!

Everybody: Ehhhh!!!???

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October 29, 2010

An "interview" with controversial human rights activist Orudo Debiru

Today- a Uni-files interview with the controversial activist and newspaper columnist Orudo Debiru
(For those who don’t know, Orudo Debiru is a naturalized Japanese citizen, originally from the U.S. His main claim to fame is his activism for human rights, especially the rights of non-Japanese in Japan. He is also wholly fictional and if he happens to resemble some actual person from say, Hokkaido, that’s because you, dear reader, made an unwarranted connection. Today he joins us with one of his most ardent, and equally fictional, supporters- Jay Newbie).

Uni-files: Debiru, in a recent newspaper article you argued that even non-Japanese living outside Japan, including those who have never set foot in Japan, should have the right to vote in Japanese elections. You also argued that they should be eligible for all the public and social services offered by the Japanese government, including pensions and welfare benefits. This seems to be a bit radical don’t you think?

Debiru: No. Otherwise you’re discriminating between Japanese people and non-residents. Why should only Japanese have access to the benefits of ‘Team Japan’?

Newbie: Japan owes something to the world. It can’t just always be take, take, take. Japan has to give in return.

Debiru: Japan is the only ‘developed’ county that doesn’t provide the vote for it’s non-citizens who live elsewhere.

Uni-files: Really? No country in the EU does that, nor do Canada, U.S., or Australia.

Debiru: What other countries do is irrelevant! What’s right is right! Are you saying that it is right for Japan to be discriminatory?

Uni-files: Debiru, you and your supporters often mention that some attitudes, policies, or states of affairs occur ‘only in Japan’ among developed countries. It seems that you buy into notions of Japanese uniqueness or exclusivity. Do you?

Debiru: Not at all! The notion of Japanese uniqueness is a nationalist myth!

Newbie: Of all developed countries, only the Japanese think of themselves as being unique. It seems to be part of the Japanese mentality. They believe whatever the government tells them. You won’t find this type of belief in Western countries anymore, only in Japan.

Uni-files: Ok. Let’s move on. You've also blogged about “how the Japanese authorities plan to incarcerate all foreign residents as a precaution against the foreign criminals”. I haven’t come across any such policy statements. Can you ground this?

Debiru: Well, I was scouring the internet looking for anything that might prove my preconceptions about the ulterior motives of the Japanese authorities when I came across another blogger who talked about how his upholsterer in Inaka Prefecture thought he had overheard a conversation at a vegetable stand about the local district council becoming more vigilant about registering foreigners for social services and helping them with securing housing. And I can substantiate it too- with a link to my blog. Anyway, to me, being told to ‘stay in your house’ in this manner is equivalent to incarceration. And the registration is clearly a way of rounding up the foreigners- just like a criminal dragnet.

Newbie: In any civilized country this would cause mass rioting in the streets. But because the Japanese are such compliant sheep, not to mention the blatant racism here, no one will stand up for us. The Japanese just pretend that foreigners don’t exist. They stare at us like we’re from another planet.

Uni-files: That must be tough for them to do, both ignoring your existence and staring at you at the same time!

Debiru: This is just the start of the whole racist process. Next thing you know, your pension is declared null and void and your 'ha-fu' kids are kicked out of school for not being Japanese enough.

Newbie: Wow, Debiru. That was your best answer yet!

Uni-files: Let me ask about these racism charges a bit. For example, I know that you oppose the fingerprinting of non-Japanese at airports but can this really be called racist? After all, it is based upon citizenship, right? For example, Debiru, you are racially Caucasian but, as a Japanese citizen, you don’t have to be fingerprinted. And someone who is racially ‘Japanese’- although Japanese isn't even a racial category- but doesn’t hold a Japanese passport still has to be fingerprinted. So while it may be other things, how can you say it is ‘racist’?

Debiru: Don’t feed the troll, Newbie. Don’t feed the troll.

Uni-files: Ok, next question. Regarding a specific recent blog entry of yours... You recently criticized the city of Sonzainashi for exploiting non-Japanese. Apparently, the city authorities had developed a ‘Welcome Foreign Guests’ plan in which selected hotels, hot springs, eateries, bars and so on offered English information and services and had started a promotional campaign that actively encouraged non-Japanese to visit. So, what was the thrust of your criticism?

Debiru: When they carry out this facile, deceitful put-on for non-Japanese they’re only doing it because they want their business. “Let’s take the foreigner’s money away from them” is the real motivation. 'Yohkoso Japan!'- Yeah, right!

Newbie: I consider it a form of robbery; another way of victimizing us, the weakest members of this society.

Uni-files: You guys seem to be very negative about anything to do with Japan, even when Japan scores an apparent success.

Newbie: That’s because Japan places everyone into an us and them paradigm. They do it all the time. They have institutionalized the formula. They use it to justify oppressive policies. We would never do that in the U.S. We have laws that forbid it and an education system that teaches us not to do so.

Uni-files:So, given that Debiru is Japanese, would you put him among that number?

Newbie: Well, I mean, he’s not really a Japanese in the same way they are. (Debiru stares at Newbie). Well I mean, like, he’s not exactly Japanese like them. So to speak. He’s a different Japanese from all the other Japanese. (Debiru continues staring at him). Well, of course he’s just the same as them in that he’s a Japanese citizen. But Debiru is more…ummm... progressive. (Debiru smiles).

Uni-files: OK. Back to the point. Wouldn’t you at least agree that public order and efficiency here is quite excellent?

Debiru: Japanese public order is maintained by coercion and implicit threat. It’s fifty years behind most other countries in this regard.

Uni-files: OK. How about robotics? Or even toilet technology?

Newbie: Robotics here is 36 years behind every other country in the world. And Japan is 23 years behind as far as toilets go.

Uni-files: On what basis can you make such bold claims?

Newbie: Three months ago in the U.S., before I came to Japan, I visited another state for the first time. And their toilets were better than here. Not as xenophobic.

Uni-files: Ok. How about manga and animation? Surely Japan’s ranking in these…

Newbie: You sound like a Japan apologist, acting as if racism never occurs here. Like nothing ever happened in Nanjing!

Debiru: Speaking of which, China has overtaken Japan as the world’s #2 power so Japan can’t possibly be leaders in those fields and therefore must be on the decline in all catgories. And it is this frustration at being a washed up, has-been society that it causing Japanese to lash out at foreigners.

Uni-files: Really? How so?

Debiru: It happens all the time. Read my blog.

Uni-files: I don’t doubt that there are individual cases but I don’t see it as systemic.

Debiru: If it isn’t systemic, why would I have so many blog posts? That’s all the proof you need! Anyway, just on our way over to this interview the taxi driver spat at us, called us ‘Dirty foreigners’ and told us to ‘Get out!”.

Uni-files: Wow! In twenty years in Japan I have never even come close to experiencing anything remotely like that. Can you elaborate? He spat at you?!

Debiru: Well, he was making disgusting sucking sounds with his teeth so that you could hear the saliva washing around. To me that’s spitting.

Uni-files: I wouldn’t call that spitting…

Debiru: Stay on topic! The point is he would never have done that if the passenger was visibly Japanese.

Uni-files: I see. And he called you a ‘dirty foreigner’?

Debiru: Well he called us “gaikokujin no kata”.

Uni-files: But that’s a very polite way of just saying ‘foreigner’! Where’s the ‘dirty’ part?

Newbie: Well we already know that the Japanese are racist and xenophobic so we can safely assume what he must have been thinking.

Uni-files: And the ‘Get out!’ part?

Newbie: He asked us where we wanted to “get out”. (awkward silence) It's semantics.

Debiru: Not only that but I am not a foreigner. I’m a Japanese citizen. (starts sniffling) I was… racially profiled!

Newbie: (patting Debiru’s slumping shoulders) There, there. Now you are a racial profiling survivor!

Debiru (brightening up): If Japan had an anti-discrimination law with any teeth he’d have his ass hauled off to jail.

Newbie: Exactly. And you know what, you’ll never see the weak-kneed Japanese media or the history textbooks pick up on stories like this either. They don’t want to hear about these high-octane truths.

Debiru: This is precisely why we need laws against racism, xenophobia, being opposed to immigration, questioning multiculturalism, and other wrong and hateful thoughts.

Uni-files: So you’re in favor of more state authority and policing over what people think?

Debiru: Are you kidding? The police and judiciary here are totally inept and corrupt. They should stay out of people’s lives… ummm…except for the lives of those people who hold unhealthy views.

Uni-files: One more thing about this case. You say that you were racially profiled because the taxi driver believed that you were a foreigner, which by the way, is a mistake that most non-Japanese would probably make as well. But how do you know that the driver was in fact Japanese. Couldn’t he have been ethnically Korean or Chinese? In other words, didn’t you profile him equally?

Debiru: (closes his eyes) Don’t feed the troll, don’t feed the troll.

Uni-files: Ok. Last question. I’m wondering how you chose your Japanese name.

Debiru: It’s the closest phonetic approximation to my previous name. In fact, I asked to have a different, more suitable name first but was refused by the [iyami deleted] Japanese authorities.

Uni-files: And what name was that?

Debiru: Martin Luther King.

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January 18, 2011

Curmudgeon time: annoying student challenges and questions

You might want to file this one under "You know you've been in Japan too long when...". It works like this:

Japanese university students are not particularly known for being pro-active, at least in terms of asking questions when the opportunity arises or challenging the teacher. Now, I realize that while this is a bit of a stereotype, I think it generally holds true. And it’s also true that there are cultural factors that come into play- perceived power relations, the role and function of classroom lectures and so on. Of course this doesn't mean that Japanese students willingly swallow all that teachers have to say. They're far from gullible. The truth is they may think that you are the most ignorant git on the face of the earth, that you know diddly squat about whatever it is you're teaching- but they are unlikely to express their feelings out loud. Or even hint at them.

Western students, on the other hand, are supposed to be much more pro-active in their questioning, openly skeptical, even combative. Moreover, Western teachers are generally expected to even encourage this type of inquisitiveness in their students. It's considered a virtue- the hallmark of active, critical thinking. Except when you're a Western teacher in Japan, that is. Ok, maybe not you dear reader, but certainly me- and many other Western teachers I know here. The fact is that a small minority of students can be annoying, pushy, picky, aggressive, almost spoiling for a fight. Sure, I welcome those students who have legitimate questions about English or the topic at hand. It's a delight. It's the rare ones (one or two in every large class?) who are habitual doubters and nitpickers who grate.

I would also argue that when it happens, it seems worse in Japan precisely because Japanese students don't normally behave this way. And that which is not culturally normative comes across more astringently, more poignantly. It's like seeing a flash of a woman's ankle if you've been in Saudi Arabia for any length of time. In other words, the behaviour stands out more as a challenge here precisely because of its relative infrequency. Explicitly expressed student doubts about a teacher are viewed in Japan, and thus may be intended, not as an exchange of possible pedagogical virtue but as a challenge to one's credibility. Even though it rarely happens, you may not applaud their critical thinking skills but rather start feeling indignant about those students who doubt or question what you say.
Konogoro wakamono- namaiki! (Smartass kids these days!)

My top (?) half dozen annoying comment/question types are:

1. The ‘exact detail’ guy:
This is the guy (and it is inevitably a male) who comes to your office with questions like, “Sensei, you said the response essay had to be about 250 words long. Is it OK if I write 247?” Or, “You said that our survey questions should include at least 3 ranking and 3 scale type questions. Can I make 4 of one and 3 of the other?”

2. The ‘I don’t get it’ guy (usually, but not always a male):
This is the student who can’t seem to understand any instruction or activity even though he is good at English and obviously quite bright (a fact that he tries to prove to you as often as he can). In fact, this is the type who thinks just a little too much… “How should I finish this open conversation you want us to have about why we want to become doctors?” or “I don’t understand this vocabulary matching exercise in the textbook” “Why not?” “One of the matching words on the right is spelled differently in my dictionary.” “It’s a UK spelling”. “Yes, I know. It’s very confusing for us” (looks doubtfully at the textbook).

3. ‘I hate sensei because he criticized me’ students:
A minority of students simply cannot accept the fact that they have to do a re-test because on their initial test, well let’s face it, they sucked. Even though I go over my rationale for their results in some detail (‘You were merely memorizing a script written by your partner, you used no medical vocabulary, your speed was poor, you made no attempt to interact with your partner…’) some students seem shocked (shocked!) that they (they!) could possibly have fallen short. They decide this must be the teacher’s fault.

[Sidebar- Jocks, to their credit, rarely do this. I can be blunt and harsh to sportsmen (and sportswomen) and they take it with an almost masochistic acceptance and vow to improve. I suppose they are used to having coaches telling them to get their asses in gear and so on, so they take it in stride. So do attractive girls (at least those who think they are attractive). Perhaps they have never heard a male use harsh words with them before and the realization that batting eyelashes doesn’t qualify them for a get-out-of-a-re-test-free card sometimes spurs them on to better things.)

This I-will-get-revenge crew usually consists of rather shy but haughty types who’ve always taken pride in their academic abilities, perhaps to counter their lack of social skills. Those who didn’t attend competitive high schools or jukus can especially be prone to the ‘How dare teacher say my work is not good enough’ syndrome.

4. ‘Nanka ne, ano, nani datta, eto…’ students:
Sometimes students will come to my office, call me in the classroom or approach me after class with a question. Fine. For some reason, even though they have taken this positive initiative they often cannot spill out a single meaningful word in English OR even in Japanese when they open their mouths. The most amusing/annoying of these is when they start the exchange with, “What?” and look at their friend who has accompanied them to Sensei’s lair but have no idea what their buddy wants to ask. Thinking that this may just be an English skills/confidence problem I have often told them to go ahead and ask in Japanese- but they can’t even frame the subject in their mother tongue (for non-Japan based readers the Romanized Japanese after #4 above translates to something like, “Umm so, well, what was it, uhh”). If I was a rock star perhaps I could take this as a sign of mindless worship and idolatry from a fan, but as an English teacher… well. Often this Shakespeare-worthy bit of articulation is followed by a ‘meaningful’ silence as if I now obviously must be in sufficient position to respond to their comment. I suppose if I was more culturally astute I would be able to intuit their inquiry from this (I’m joking of course!).

5. ‘I deserve a half point more’ types:
These are the students who would do very well haggling in the underground bazaar in Istanbul. They aggressively campaign for the slightest possible upgrades on even the most minor classroom quizzes. “Sensei, you gave me only a half point for writing ‘I will remove it after five minutes is gone’ on the test but you gave Takahashi a whole point when he wrote ‘I’ll remove it in 5 minutes’”. “Yes, Takahashi’s answer is more natural and compact” “But mine isn’t 'wrong', is it! So why do I lose a half point?”
...And why would a student lose any sleep over this? That whole half a point will make up about .01% of their overall grade anyway. I don’t mind explaining why I docked them the point, but they seem to be less interested in the pedagogical reasons than they do in squeezing every possible point they can out of me. For sport, apparently.

6. The ‘I don’t believe you because my dictionary/junior high textbook says otherwise’ types:
You will soon learn that in Japan the dictionary is the inerrant, inspired, and immediate word of God. So, as a teacher, you can mention all you want that ‘condition’ often does not mean ‘level of wellness’ but in fact can refer to a sickness or disorder (as in ‘a blood condition’), and even offer concrete examples of usage from an authentic source. But there will still be a few doubting Thomases who shake their heads upon looking it up in their ‘Genius’ dictionaries and discover that it doesn’t confirm what you said. Out-of-date forms, awkward/unwieldy phrases and special field usages can get the same response: It doesn’t say so in the dictionary so someone must be wrong- and it can’t be the dictionary!

Any more I should add?

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October 19, 2011

Has Charisma Man jumped the shark?

We'll call her Terrie. Terrie from New Zealand. She was quite glamorous-- and very aware of it. We worked together as teachers. The previous evening she had met my wife, who is Japanese, at a school-related function. She remarked how attractive my wife was. Thank you-- that's nice to hear. Then Terrie went on...

"White guys can upgrade their girlfriend levels when in Asia, can't they?"
"I mean, you know. Your wife is very attractive. If you were still in Canada or New Zealand you probably wouldn't ... well...". Terrie never had a problem with bluntness.
"You mean, if we were back in the old country guys like me probably wouldn't have a shot at babes like you?"
"Exactly. Now you're getting it!". She was being only half tongue-in-cheek. I appreciated the frankness.

Terrie later married an Irish guy living and teaching in Japan. Ironic, that.

I wasn't bothered about the insinuation that I was living above my allotted 'significant other' station in Japan (as if all the men back in Canada are Porsche-driving Brad Pitt-lookalike investment bankers with Stanford post-doc degrees). Terrie's teasing and my response were both light-hearted. I never get offended by such remarks and I still don't (in fact the only thing I get offended by are people who claim to be offended all the time). But over time I've just grown tired of it. You know, the whole White-English-Teacher-in-Japan-as-Charisma-Man motif. Johnny Bravo Goes to Nova.

Charisma fans...

Like most people, I enjoy the Charisma Man comics. The pretext of the dopey white loser from 'Planet Canada' who is transformed (at least in his own mind) into a desirable English-teaching he-stud superman when in Japan is clever. And everyone gets tagged. White guys are pathetic, untalented, wimps whose egos and self-images soar to preposterous proportions in Japan. Western women, Charisma Man's mortal enemies, are cantankerous, aggressive shrews. Japanese women are treated as goggle-eyed, bimboesque playthings. Japanese men are portrayed as goofy, socially awkward, xenophobes. Non-white, non-Japanese people don't seem to exist. Of course the stereotypes are overblown- and we thus occasionally we spot a bit of ourselves or people we know in the caricatures. Harmless self-deprecating ironic fun.

No, the problem isn't with the comic itself but rather how the personae has been appropriated by the NJ community as a catch-all, go-to prototype for just about any Western male in the EFL profession in Japan. It was once amusing but now it has become too predictable.

The thing is, among NJ circles in Japan the only caricatures among the above that people feel confident about actually applying (without fear of reproach) are the two about the males. (not being Japanese I can't speak for the men here but I think they get the worst stereotype rap, and particularly from the type of people who rail against any type of stereotyping).

Back-home loser

But ok. I'm supposed to be 'privileged' as a WM in Asia so I have to take the lumps that come with it. The group who allegedly controls the power and the narrative has to accept being a legitimate target-- or so the whole social karma meme seems to go. We have to accept the barbs with good grace. So I will suffer the slings of being thought of as a spotty-faced, romantically-challenged, back-home loser, whose only previously qualifications were manning the grill at a fast food joint-- even though this portrayal is highly inaccurate (I got promoted to the drive-thru window!)

But Western WMs whining about oppression is unseemly. So instead, let me put it in terms of the Charisma Man label not only being inaccurate but also as having become tired, passe, hackneyed, overdone, past its sell-by date. It has become the default 'touche' reproach of choice for the most minor of alleged WM transgressions. In short, it has jumped the shark.

'Cholesterol Man?'

Perhaps we need a new character to represent the WM English-teaching-in-Japan demographic (how about a cynical 40-something, left-leaning, highly computer-literate, twice divorced borderline alcoholic, with a bit of a paunch, poor grooming and fashion sense, who thinks 50-year old political slogans are still radically subversive-- Cholesterol Man, anyone?) Why? For one thing, I would say that economics has caused the number of fly-by-night English teachers to have dropped and long-termers are now ubiquitous. Jobs are precious- more teachers are more serious about being serious. And it's also because the reality is that we live with some of the burdens of the Charisma Man image but without reaping any of the benefits. I wish it were true that comely women threw themselves at me with abandon but that hasn't happened -- oh, for days!

And of course attempts to validate the Charisma Man caricature are particularly insulting to Japanese women, since it assumes they are so isolated, naive, or insulated that they have low, or no, standards when it comes to rating the attractiveness of foreign men-- as if they have never as much as seen a photo of men like Jude Law or David Beckham. 30 plus years ago, sure we may have been a touch exotic in the smaller J-burgs perhaps, but in the new millennium, when every Japanese woman under 40 has either travelled abroad or has at least seen a few thousand or so foreign men in their cities? Sorry- dream on, Romeo! Any such illusions of self-grandeur Western men have in Japan these days evaporates about 15 minutes after Mr. Newbie has passed through immigration control.

'You actually have qualifications?'

I also wish that my Charisma-isms were so highly regarded in the workplace that doors opened up for me without effort but really, how many foreigners here can say that their foreignness has been a catalyst, rather than a detriment, in terms of gaining long-term employment or meaningful promotion? I know that in my own position I have to keep proving to some of my peers that I have an academic pedigree, that I can and do produce research and am not simply here as the token ( and by extension, expendable) foreign guy (beautiful as I may be) who chats in English to goggle-eyed students. You know, things like being labeled 'Mike sensei' at faculty meetings (which is particularly galling if your name isn't 'Mike'), being introduced as 'our foreign teacher', or having peers be surprised that you actually have a graduate degree in the field and a list of publications.
(Disclaimer- while only the latter has happened at my current place of employment, I have encountered all of them in various locales previously-- from both Japanese and NJ, male and female alike-- as have many other teachers in positions similar to mine). We don't need these scenarios exacerbated by the Charisma Man shtick.

"Licentious Linguistics"

I attended a presentation called "Licentious Linguistics: White Western Men as English Teachers in Japan" by Dr. Roslyn Appleby from the University of Technology, Sydney at the Beijing AILA Conference earlier this year. Appleby's observations (she hasn't worked or lived in Japan herself) were based upon several interviews with young Australian men, most with minimum teaching qualifications, who had in their formative (between graduation and finding a career) years worked as English teachers in Japan. And... here comes the part that you will not believe so please grip your armrests tightly ...they spent a lot of time carousing with local girls. Moreso, it seems, than in becoming serious, skilled ESL teachers. Whodathunkit?!

Moreover, the presenter noted, the image of meeting an attractive WM chat partner (or more) through the Eikaiwa school was a part of many advertisement campaigns (forget for a moment that just about every such school expressly forbids dalliances with customers since any would-be-lothario is siphoning off potential income from the business as well as the fact that attractive WF are equally present in the ads). Businesses using attractive or eligible-looking role models to lure customers?! Surely not!

And guess what? Germans occasionally drink beer!

Not surprisingly Charisma Man outtakes occupied a good number of Appleby's presentation slides. The problem is that these days just about every white guy teaching English in Japan gets tagged with the Charisma Man brand at some point, especially if his wife/gf is Japanese. I think the current criteria for being labeled a Charisma Man, other than being a white male in Japan, consists of roughly, 1) having drunk a beer in close proximity to another white guy and 2) having ever talked about local women. A typical claim may go like this:
WM: (to the izakaya waitress) I'll have a Suntory Premium. (The waitress goes away. Then, to a fellow imbibing teacher) Hmmm. Friendly waitress.
Fellow Imbiber: Jeez, get a load of Charisma Man here!
WM: That's it. I'm outta here. I've got a softball game at my frat house tonight. (Chugs his beer)

Such Charisma Man accusations occur even if the person in question has been here in Japan over ten years, speaks the language, is happily married, does his academic research, doesn't feel obligated to chat up young ladies in bars, and has no illusions about his worsening metabolism or memories of a hairline. I mean, I can enjoy self-delusion to a point, but as a middle-aged university teacher I cannot allow me to envision myself as Charisma Man to my students anymore than I can daydream that I am Sidney Crosby when I go ice-skating.

Casey's 'unfair' response

Anyway, after Appleby's presentation, I was approached by a fellow Japan-based dead white male university teacher who had attended the same presentation and looked a bit put out. We'll call him Casey. Casey is a man of such gentle countenance, so widely known for his philanthropy and egalitarianism, that he makes Peter Gabriel look like a football hooligan. There is more chance of Ichiro Ozawa starring in a Takazakura Revue show than there is of Casey chatting up ladies in the local izakaya.

"Mike, what did you think of that presentation?" Casey asked. Now, any fist-waving histrionics about it being a man-hate fest wouldn't be warranted-- it wasn't like that at all. It was well-presented, nothing incendiary. I remarked that I didn't understand the point of making this into a presentation theme. I mean, some young Aussie males go abroad to teach English, are less than serious about ESL, and chase girls. I'm not sure how or why that is something that needs to be conveyed at a linguistics conference.

"I thought it was a little.... unfair", Casey replied. "Not really representative of English teachers in Japan". He added (correctly IMO) that the sample of men interviewed represented a pretty narrow sub-culture of white, Western men in Japan, namely 'bogans' (actually, Casey didn't use that bit of Aussie slang but if you're not familiar with it the mere sound of the word should tell you all you need to know). This is far from representative of the WM diaspora in Japan, and although Appleby acknowledged this fact in the presentation itself, the promotional blurb for the presentation certainly doesn't do anything to minimize the "Tsk tsk, Charisma Man= WM English teachers in Japan" association.

Now I'm just waiting for someone to comment about how 'Charisma Man' my attitude is in this article. After all, I've made a few lame jokes, have referred to women, beer, and sports and the article is accompanied by a photo of my badass WM visage. Rest assured that such comments will cause me to pull at my jagged spike of blonde hair and bang my ruggedly chiseled jaw on the keyboard.

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May 29, 2012

Ya ya- We university teachers laugh too!

If you are a Western male of certain age you probably grew up watching Benny Hill, Monty Python, and later, the Canadian contribution to the 'D'ya remember the one where...?" culture, SCTV. Watching this stuff was almost a rite of passage. In fact, you might remember the following exchange from Benny Hill, with a mother extolling the virtues of her dubious son to a doubter:
“He’s a good boy. There are twenty-five pubs in this town and he hasn’t been in one of them!”
“And which one is that?”

I like this little gem for the interesting word play which means it has some (albeit minimal) value in an English classroom. Analyzing linguistically as to why the ‘joke’ works is, of course, socially forbidden—but you might enjoy the mental exercise anyway. Now I certainly don't recommend a class, let alone a course, for English jokes and comedy but some do have a place in the more informal teacher-student moments and settings.

"I told you not to mention it!"

Benny Hill was ripe with this stuff although Hill had at least as many misses as hits. While Hill was more of a punchline guy, Python and SCTV went for absurd concepts and oddball characterizations that are not really reducible to ‘jokes’. Not surprisingly, they don't translate as well.

Another ta-dum moment from Benny Hill:
(Describing a renaissance music concert) "There were lutes and mandolins, not to mention a cittern."
"A cittern?"
(Sharply) "I told you not to mention it!"

Bad, sure-- but in a good sort of way. And very good for helping us realize some of the absurdity or oddities in our language. And yes, the old, oft-quoted 'assume as ass-u-me' gag first came from Benny.

My all-time favourite Benny Hill gag was one of his 'poetry readings', which starts in a somber tone which starts:
They said that it could not be done,
He asked them “Why?”,
“Other men have tried and failed” they said
But he said, “Not I”..

(The Kipling-esque, My Way-ish motif slowly builds up to a dramatic crescendo as we expect our protagonist to emerge from his quest victorious. And so to the ending…)
… So he faced up to ‘that which could not be done’--

Not only the abrupt change in register (from the British Empire laureate to the bloke in the pub) but the bursting of the hackneyed, pretentious, highly-expected “you can do it if you try your best” bubble is somehow liberating. This one translates into Japanese well too.

What doesn't work? Well just look at this painful attempt at telling a wordplay joke to the Dalai Lama . You don't need an MA in Linguistics to figure out why the poor Lama is lost.

'How is his odor?'

It may be telling that one rare Python item that catches student interest is the German counter-joke, the deliberate epic fail (I’m channeling my inner 16 year old when I write that) concocted by the notoriously unfunny Germans as a response the Britain’s wartime ‘killer joke’. It goes:
My dog has no nose”
“How does he smell?”

Now no one, certainly not the Pythons, thinks that this is clever-- its doltishness is precisely the point-- but just try telling this ditty to your Japanese friends. Then try it in Japanese if there is no response. It will probably come out something like this:
“My dog has no nose”
“How is his odor?”

Doesn’t quite work, does it? Sigh. The Japanese have no sense of humor. Oh, wait a second…

Ann Elk-- and committee meetings

One Python over-the-top character that does draw a knowing response in Japan is Ann Elk, John Cleese’s dinosaur ‘expert’ who can’t get to her pithy point about dinosaurs being very big without elaborate preludes and evasive coughing while the program host, Graham Chapman, grows increasingly fidgety and agitated. This works because officials of every type in Japan have a habit of conveying the pithiest or most obvious of points using incredibly elaborate frontings.

In fact, just yesterday I attended the initial meeting of this year's entrance exam committee. Every time the committee leader referred to the test he called it, ”The 25th year of Heisei's Miyazaki University entrance examination” as if the attendees needed constant reminding as to the year, the university they work at, and what the test is for. The actual body of the text following this prelude would typically be something like, “will take place on March 4th from 10 to 2” followed by an equally tortuous denouement, “so I would hereby like to humbly request the cooperation of all 25th year of Heisei Miyazaki University entrance exam committee members in carrying this out… I think”. (Is anyone else reminded of the Counting of the Number of the Holy Hand Grenade here?) .
So much for the zen-like minimalist mystique of the Japanese language.

'I sure did that thing'- Cardinal Richelieu

The beguiling dissonance of certain off-kilter lines have stayed with me for thirty-plus years. Can you remember the court in Monty Python summoning a swaggering, gum-chewing Cardinal Richelieu as a witness? (jump to about 5:00 in) To ascertain his background the prosecutor asks him, among other things:
Did you take stern measures against the great Catholic nobles who made common cause with foreign foes in defense of their feudal independence?”
To which Richelieu, ridiculous French accent and all, replies:
“Yeah. I sure did that thing”

This has since become my default response to elaborate accusations, especially those I can’t really comprehend. But explaining how the final “thing” takes all the pompous wind out of the question and reeks of irreverence and diffidence… well, that’s another matter.

Interesting, oddball funny stories of about two minutes’ length are also good openers or attention getters in classrooms (provided you know how to tell a story, can modify speed and lexis to make it meaningful to second language learners, and remember that the classroom is not your American Idol platform for mesmerizing captive audiences). For your amusement, here are a few of mine that have worked:

Is Yasui Sokken following me?

Story 1: When I lived in Tokyo there was a small day care center and park across the narrow alley from my home. In this park was a monument. It was the gravesite/memorial of Yasui Sokken, the great Confucian scholar of the early 19th century. When I later moved to Miyazaki, there was a protected monument and preserved building in a small park next to my new home. It was the birthplace of ... that great early 19th century Confucian scholar Yasui Sokken.

Groundhog Day in Morioka?

Story 2: About 18 years ago I took a winter trip up to Tohoku. My then-GF was back in her hometown for Christmas and I wasn’t invited so I was doing a little Snow Country tour. On Christmas eve I arrived in Morioka, Iwate and found a cheap ryokan. The ‘Okami’ also ran a bar in town and suggested, this being Christmas eve and all, that I might find some happy company there. So I followed her advice.

The bar girl spoke English surprisingly well and told me of her dream to study law abroad. When she moved away to serve other customers, a salaryman beside me, soft-spoken and articulate, struck up a conversation. The piano man all bifocals and buckteeth but with silky fingers gave me a friendly nod as he launched into “Take Five”. And at that moment the front door opened and a loud drunk—the kind you keep a corner of your eye on because he might become trouble—clambered his way in.

Fast forward exactly ten years ahead. It’s Christmas eve again and I’m on my way by train to see a friend in Aomori. But snow is blocking the tracks and there is an announcement that the train will go no further than Morioka. Damn! I’ll have to spend the night there! I remember the reasonably-priced ryokan I stayed at before. They have one room available so I take it. I’m alone on Christmas eve but I remember the old bar so I think, why not?

As I enter, I hear the piano and, taking my seat at the bar, I see the bifocals and the teeth of the piano man but now a ponytail has sprouted. The bar girl comes over to take my order… Could it be...? Why yes, she speaks English and…it’s her! I wonder what happened to the dreams of law school? I decide it might not be kosher to ask. I mention to her that we met here before—about ten—wait a minute, EXACTLY ten years ago. That was Christmas eve too! Then, the piano guy starts playing “Take Five”. (maybe it should have been the Twlight Zone theme) I turn to the guy next to me at the bar. “This is weird”, I say. “Exactly ten years ago on the same night, I met the same bar girl here and the same piano guy played the same tune”.
“And you talked to someone here at the bar?”
“Uhhh… I think that was me”
At that moment, there was a noise at the door as a loud drunk walked in…

A small restaurant-- in the dohyo

Story 3: Some readers may have read this one elsewhere before.
In a Tokyo classroom a loooong time back, I was asking students to tell me about someone they admired. “Chiyonofuji” offered up a student. Being new to Japan then I didn’t know who he was so I asked the student to tell me about Chiyonofuji.
“He is a small restaurant,” came the response.
“Sorry,” I corrected him, “He runs or manages a small restaurant”. The students gives me a look of confusion mixed with agitation, “No. He is a small restaurant!,” he insists. Another student then interrupts, “Chiyonofuji,” he clarifies, “is a sumo wrestler”.

But then again some sumo wrestlers could be considered small restaurants.

Unintentionally taunting the police

Story 4:
Everybody likes a police story, right? So, about two years ago I was driving home after having spent a hot summer day outdoors. I decide to pick up a can of beer at a convenience store and put it in the back seat where the shaded windows should keep it relatively cool. I drive down a steep hill but just before I reach the intersection the light turns red. I have to brake hard and the beer rolls off the back seat and splatters onto the floor. As the light turns green and I advance, I hear a telltale hiss and smell the brew.

The fall has ruptured the can and now it is spewing out a crack in the side all over the back seat. I reach around to grab the beer, which now resembles an epileptic fountain of sorts, and roll down my window—beer in hand—and stick it outside to keep the liquid flow and smell out of the car. So there I am driving through a major intersection with my window down, holding a spouting beer outside.

You know where this is going, don’t you? A cop is stationed just on the other side of the intersection. He gapes at the sight—it is apparently so in-your-face that he appears almost paralyzed. I see him get in his car and turn the key but I think, why even bother? I pull over almost immediately. I get out of my car carrying the offending brew for all to see. Trying to hide it would implicate me. You know what? The cop laughed. He could see that the side was cracked and spewing and that there was liquid all over my right arm. He told me to dump the beer and put things like that on the floor next time to avoid the same thing happening again. Like it ever would.

'You'd think a police officer would notice details like that!'

I’ve generally had good interactions with cops. Perhaps because I look agreeable, speak Japanese well enough, and simply don’t have a defensive look about me. Touch wood. I had one disagreeable experience of note though. My wife was driving with me as a passenger one evening. She had an imported car so the steering wheel was on the ‘other side’. Suddenly, a cop siren rang out behind us and indicated that we should pull over. The middle-aged cop came to the window on my side, looked in, and said to my wife, “Your tail light isn’t working. Pull over just ahead”. She did so and got out of her car to check the light. I stayed inside.

But the same cop came up to my window again. “Get out of the car” he bellowed. “Why?”. “You are required to get out of the car”. Hesitantly, and looking doubtful, I got out. “Give me your license!”. “Why? I wasn’t driving!”. Then he got nasty. “Don’t give me that bullshit ‘ I wasn’t driving’ I mean, come on!”. Just then his junior partner, who had been doing the paperwork with my wife overheard us, “Ummm. It’s an imported car, sir. The steering wheel is on the other side. He wasn’t driving.”

The older cop looked down and shuffled his feet, mumbling an ‘apology’ that sounded more like, ‘I knew that but I’m just going by the book to be sure,’ and sauntered back to his car. The junior guy shrugged his shoulders and smiled sheepishly at me. “Sorry about that”, he said, gesturing towards his truculent partner. My wife couldn’t resist a parting shot, “You’d think someone like a police officer would notice a detail like which side the steering wheel is on and who is driving when he stops a driver and talks to them through the window”. The younger cop nodded. I think he had probably been on the receiving end of a few barbs from his partner too.

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August 01, 2012

Let's laugh and point at those lowlife English teachers!

I’m tired of apologizing for myself. Yeah, I’m an English teacher. You’re a cook. He’s in retail-- runs a small business. That guy’s a financial advisor. My brother-in-law drives a truck.

Hey, we could scoff at that too! Except when you realize that the trucks he drives are those earth-shakingly enormous super-monster-goliath mining trucks, the kind that send the pulses of prepubescent boys who watch Discovery Channel racing. And he makes about $80 an hour. You’re not scoffing now. Now, I'm not sure what else he'd do if he didn't drive a truck, but in his field he has driven himself (yeah, a weak pun I know) to the top of the heap and provides well for his family. He's a decent working man doing OK. So no one scoffs- nor should they.

I could introduce myself by saying that I’m a professor at a National University. It's true, so sometimes I do. This always wins me some politeness creds at immigration. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll soon find out that I’m an English professor and, well, that’s still just an English teacher, not a real professor, isn't it? Am I supposed to be ashamed? Apparently.

Why? Apparently, my only skill is that I speak my mother tongue and that if I were back in Canada I wouldn’t have a job or be of any social value. Maybe a late night shift at a convenience store or gas station would be my calling. I’m a dork and a loser ‘back home’ but think I'm a freaking hero in Japan.

Oh really? Like every time I visit Canada all the other guys my age are neurosurgeons and high-powered executives, dressed in Brooks Brothers splendor, with a tanned healthy blonde on each arm, keys to the Lexus dangling conspicuously. Yeah, right.

It’s true that I don’t have great mechanical aptitude, that I’d look about as comfortable handling a lathe as Ayako Imoto would parading in a Milanese high-fashion show. And I’ve lost my muscle tone for lying pipe. Hey, I barely have the muscle tone for looking at pipe. But if Mr. Pipe-Layer and Mr. Lathe-Handler come to my classroom I will kick their asses when it comes to the class management of 35 students or developing a viable ESP curriculum.

But let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about other English teachers in Japan. Teachers like Clark Steamhamm.

Clark is decent at academics and is inclined towards the humanities. He’s fairly articulate and conversant. He studied humanities at university for stimulation and to stir his curiosity, not for job-training. He got an MA but hadn’t given too much thought to an actual vocation thereafter. Clark likes to travel. He hears of a gig in Japan teaching English and comes over. He finds that it suits his skills and sensibilities. He gradually picks up some ELT-specific certifications, hones his classroom skills, and eventually gets his feet in the door of a Japanese university. He then begins a PhD program in Applied Linguistics and ultimately gets a steadier position at the university. He writes papers, does research, presents at conferences, takes roles in professional organizations. He gets married, has kids, buys a house. He'll be here awhile.

So do we scoff at Clark? After all, he’s just an English teacher. What would he do ‘back home’? (As if ‘back home’ is a relevant issue for Clark now). Hey, the guy has a steady job. He’s an academic, a minor academic to be sure but…. He has educated, furthered, and marketed himself so that he can buy a house and raise a family in reasonable comfort. Ha ha! What a looser!

Next let’s look at Ed Skidmark. Ed’s less academically inclined than Clark—he just doesn’t have the patience for it. Ed stops in Japan while backpacking through Asia and meets a girl (this will become a common theme). He likes it here and decides to stay, living in rural Kagawa Prefecture. But what to do? Ed decides to start up Ed’s Maple Leaf English School in his small town, since there is little competition and an apparent market. Ed develops some business acumen and some social skills because he is now an entrepreneur, a businessman. He learns Japanese and works hard to establish his business in the community. He also develops some fine practical teaching skills over time. Ed marries the woman he loves, and has kids. Everyone in the town knows him and his school. He has financially rocky moments, but he does OK.

Do we laugh and point at Ed? After all, he’s also just an English teacher—and one without an advanced degree. But he’s a self-made man, running a business, and establishing himself in the community. Ha ha—what a dweeb.

OK, how about Leonard Swatcloth? Leonard came to Japan because his real love is pottery—Japanese pottery, at which he is quite adept and he can always sell a few pieces at exhibitions, but he knows that this is hardly a profession in which he can safely retire. So he teaches English on the side—maybe at Ed’s school. He gets a few local qualifications and becomes a decent teacher, although it never becomes his passion. But it helps him support his pottery jones and he feels fulfilled because of this. How then shall we poke fun at this skill-bereft Charisma man?

Finally, let's look at Dane Chocolate-Lather. Dane got his BA in the UK and got hired on the JET Program. He’s not sure he’s suited to teaching, and only occasionally enjoys it. But he met some people from a well-known ELT publishing company and managed to shoehorn his way in as a local sales representative and, possibly in the future, a materials writer. This role suits him better. But hey, it’s just ELT-- so he’s about as successful as that guy zombied out to hell in front of the Sunderland methadone clinic every morning, right?

OK. Let’s look outside of English teaching. Do we laugh at the guy who comes to Japan and can cook some basic dishes from his home country? The guy who opens an ‘ethnic’ restaurant in Toyama and manages to make a decent living while improving his cooking skills, not to mention honing that all-important entrepreneurial and social acumen. After all, just about anyone can cook a few dishes from the old country! So why can't we apply the same sophisticated critique to him that usually applies to English teachers: Moran!

Or the guy from Brisbane who shuns English teaching completely-- it's just not his thing at all-- but decides to open a bar in Japan, which becomes moderately successful. Screw the business acumen and social skills, anyone can pour a beer! He’d sure be useless ‘back home’ right? I mean, you sure never find people who open bars and serve drinks in Australia! No, they’re all rocket scientists and structural engineers!

And then there’s the guy (*note-- I am conscious that all my samples are males, this is because it seems that females are off the finger-pointing hook to a much greater degree for just being English teachers than are males—which does indicate an implicit sexism in the charges, true) who gets his degree in business admin and starts out by apprenticing in a minor financial firm in Salem. But he gets tired of being reined in, being way down the decision-making ladder, and thinks he would have more freedom if he took his knowledge of investments to the foreign community in Fukuoka. He gets the necessary licenses, starts pressing the flesh, and—if he gives a bit of winning advice and a few profitable tips, he gets established in the local financial advisor scene. Yeah, absolute rock bottom scum. A leech on society.

Sure, we could also point to Fergus Totalform, who basically flits from teaching job to teaching job in Japan, has no real qualifications for teaching, and doesn’t apparently care much about it (his ‘hobby’ seems to be not having his contract renewed). He drinks way too much and borrows money from other ex-pats who can then wave it bye-bye. He's burned a lot of bridges. We all know of guys like Fergus. But of course there’s absolutely no one like this in Canada. No one.

Does this all sound like someone threw a stick into a pack of dogs and the one that got hit is yelping? Maybe. Or is it just a response to a few people from outside the ELT Community who have no idea of what's involved, how we get established and build lives here but, for some reason, feel superior. I don't really need the respect, nor do I ask for it. I just want those people who point the fingers to know who the hell they are pointing at.

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December 17, 2013

EFL Teaching Crimes and Pedagogical Punishments

I hereby propose that the following fifteen categories of teaching violation attain the status of law among EFL teachers, with punishment, as decreed below, duly applied:

1. For holding a test in the final class session—with no opportunity for feedback to students.
Teacher’s salary and contract conditions to be held in secret without explanation until expiry-- and that to be done with a week’s notice*.
(*Yes-- I know that many teachers actually work under such conditions.)

2. For suggesting that university English programs should focus upon ‘daily conversation’.
Lifetime exposure, as a manager at a highly specialized professional firm, to university recruits who can flawlessly convey how they went ‘shopping for shoes in Shibuya last weekend’.

3. For encouraging high-school students to study grammatical minutiae more ‘because that’s what is needed to pass university entrance exams’.
Be required to take every national university entrance exam designed in the country over the past ten years utilizing only your knowledge of English grammar. Kudos if you manage to qualify for anything higher than, oh, a Dog Grooming Vocational School.

4. For asking general classroom questions such as ‘Has everyone remembered their textbook today?’ to a class consisting of more than ten students and actually expecting an answer.
Be seated in front of a national TV audience and asked repeatedly, “Have you stopped stalking underage celebrities?” until you can respond with a suitable yes or no answer.

5. For not informing EFL students as to exactly how many words or pages a written assignment consists of.
To be awoken every thirty minutes by an alarm that consists of an annoying twenty-something voice asking, “Are three A5 sheets enough for my Master’s thesis?”

6. For making bad jokes involving student names (*e.g. for Japanese speakers only* such as encouraging ‘Yukari’ to go ahead by saying, “Go Yukari, douzo.” Ta-tum!).
Be renamed Michael Guest and thereby be regularly exposed to hotel reception staff and immigration officials telling you, with great mirth, how you are a ‘Guest’ in our hotel/country. Nyuk nyuk.

7. For sitting with your butt on the top of a desk, ‘let’s chat’ style, while in class (East Asian ordinance).
Teach your entire next class wearing only a Speedo. Your students will consider it as an equally egregious breach of etiquette.

8. For searching for the single ‘best’ or ‘correct’ English teaching method.
To be given a Total Physical Response by being forced to wear an off-white Miami Vice-style leisure suit and be time transported back to 1984, because that’s where the perpetrator is apparently trapped, and then be given the Silent Method treatment by his or her peers.

9. For believing that your role in the local classroom is to enlighten students about their own country—under the presumption that the education system has hidden these truths from them.
A cross-Pacific flight (minimum 12 hours) seated next to an opinionated political know-it-all who thinks this is the best time to regale you with his ‘insider ‘knowledge’ of the secret world order. The one that you don’t know about because ‘it looks like they got to you’-- but hey, he’s on to them.
Return trip required if your original classroom spiel focused upon Global Warming.

10. For taking points off a student writing assignment for ‘each mistake made’.
A full year marking the safest, most boring, bland, least lexically and grammatically adventurous student-made texts known to mankind. Throw back a shot of tequila each time the sentence, ‘I keep a pet.’ appears.

11. For mischaracterizing your student’s simple question about how many paragraphs he/she should write as "an intense meta-discourse on the process of composition."
Required teaching of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to a first year EFL class.

12. For assuming that students should be able to utilize a certain complex English skill proficiently because you ‘went over it in class’. Once.
Be forced to read the thirty-page thick ‘shiryo’ (meeting handouts) out loud at the Japanese faculty meeting because, after all, you studied from the book, ‘My First Two Hundred Kanji’. Once.

13. For making any student over the age of five sing, “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes”.
Having to listen to any student over the age of five sing, “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes.”

14. For making a lesson that consists largely of ‘teaching’ concrete words that any student could look up in a dictionary.
Spending an entire evening in conversation in your second-best language with a native speaker of that language, whose notion of conversation consists of pointing at mundane items and naming them.

15. For asking questions such as, “Do you like movies?” or, “Do you like music?” in the classroom, and believing that you are ‘teaching conversation’.
A complete and utter sudden loss of the ability to enjoy absolutely any movie or piece of music at all.

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