In the spirit of comics like Life after the BOE, and as a result of a Steam Sale to buy a comic making program, I’ve been making comics about life in Japan. I’ve made a few already for Facebook, but I’ve decided to upload them here as well.
I’ve been struggling for some time to figure out what to blog about that isn’t negative or focused on “herr herr look at Japan.” I also don’t want this to turn into just another travel blog or the like. While the comics do kind of poke fun at Japan, it does so in (I hope) an innocent way, rather than focusing on how being an ALT/expat can be frustrating.
The comics, which I’ve titled “Gaikoku,” poke fun at the idea that everywhere and everyone that isn’t Japan is called “gaikoku.” So far, the comics are about funny things that happen to me, and in one case is basically verbatim.
I’ll start uploading the already made comics over the next little bit, and post here when I have any new ones. In the mean time, hold onto your butts.
First off, I wanted to touch on my absence. Aside from getting busy and dealing with some personal matters, I decided to take a step back from blogging. Most notably, I felt that too many of my posts turned into ridiculous gawking; looking at all the wacky stuff in Japan and talking about how wacky it is.
In a nut shell, I hated it. While I’ve had a good time writing, I never wanted this to be about silly gawking at or ranting about Japan. So here’s hoping I can do something different.
It’s been a year since I came to Kamikawa. Prompted by the anniversary and my a friendly reader, I wanted to look at what has changed for me over the last year.
A lot has happened since I’ve come here, but at the same time I feel like I’ve done very little. I read a lot of comments about “putting you life on hold” this and “losing a year” that when people talk about JET, school, or what not.
I knew coming into this that my views were not the same as a lot of other JETs. I’m in this for the long haul, intending to stay as long as I can. I plan to enjoy the time I have here and use it to try and secure a better future. A year is an incredibly short time, even if you an cover a lot of ground.
A while back, I talked about a student I’ve been tutoring. Things haven’t been going so well since he’s been really busy, but we’ve both made some headway.
The small steps are the best ones.
Since I started tutoring Kevin, her grades have gone up by quite a bit. They are still low on a grand scale, but he got 40% on a recent test, even though we haven’t been meeting lately. Considering he was getting something like 10% when I met him, that is a phenomenal improvement. And he’ll speak to me in English once in a while, which I feel shows a lot of growth.
My hopes for Kevin were never that he become a top student. If he does end up loving English, great, but that wasn’t my goal. Instead, I wanted to show him some new ways to study and provide some simplified help that could get him through junior high. And I feel like Ive done that.
However, there has been another major development on this front. I’ve been having teachers slowly reach out to me to help other learning disabled students. My main teacher has even admitted that there are learning disabled students in class, that the problem isn’t just in English, and that we could be doing more to help.
Remember, this is Japan, a country that demands conformity and hasn’t been great in the past on handling special education. While there doesn’t seem to be a detailed enough diagnosis to work with, the fact that the teachers are ready to admit this and seek out my help is a huge step forward.
I… I have really short legs.
I really hope that I can continue to move forward on this. Although I’ve not an expert in special education, I am learning disabled and a product of a system that promotes inclusive education. Being trusted to help learning disabled students represents moving forward in my job and an increase in trust and responsibility.
Another tunnel light has been the increased willingness of my teachers as well as some new and very sharp administration. The Japanese business world largely revolves around the same calendar as the education system; the year starts in April, and with that comes some employee movements. Some of the teachers and administration moved around this year, and my new vice-principal is wonderful.
We can always use more blue in our lives.
While a lot of Japanese people do see problems in their country, it’s less common for them to know what to do about it. Mr. O have been a wonderful shoulder to lean on when things haven’t gone well in the classroom. He not only knows that there are problems with English, immigration, and other matters that deal with foreign residents, but he is also vocal about why these problems exist and how to improve upon them.
Add to this another new teacher who wants to focus more on communication, one of my teachers wanting to learn more about how to prepare better lessons, and a general interest in bringing change into the classroom (even if it isn’t a lot of change), This year is already shaping up to be far better than last.
My troubled marriage
As I’ve noted before, I have a pretty odd outlook when it comes to talking about the Japanese language. I unfortunately have not really progressed very much in this area. So far, all attempts to sit down and study Japanese just haven’t got over well.
But that isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom. My Japanese has gotten better by being here. I have to speak Japanese everyday, talk around my weaknesses, and explain complex thoughts that I lack the grammar and vocabulary for. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Further, I have been paying attention during class and trying to pick up some of the grammar and vocab that the students are dealing with. And I’m making tiny steps forward when it comes to reading, which I feel is the direction I should be moving in. Grinding kanji wasn’t really working, and sitting down with grammar drills isn’t going well without a class structure. But I’m able to (mostly) understand things that are happening around me. If I can get some practice reading for comprehension, that should give a notable boost.
One proof of concept was reading a kids book today. The library had a bunch of books they were getting rid of, and I grabbed a few kids books. I’m planning to give them to my niece and nephew when I go back to Canada for Christmas, but I read through one today at work. Even though I didn’t understand every word or phrase, I was able to read the story with only a few dictionary lookups. I also translated the story later so that the kids can read it later. This took some more work to get the exact meaning, but it was proof that I did understand what I read.
Lastly, one of my goals while being here was to come to a decision about my professional future. I’ve been reading up on career requirements and graduate education. While I’m still not sure what I want to do following my time here, I have made some progress.
I’m looking at a Masters degree in TESOL at the moment, specifically an online option. I still have a number of options open, but I’m uncertain as to how viable they are. But following things backwards, it seems like having a Masters degree in TESOL could be a step forward.
Although a Masters would require more dice. Just a few.
One option this opens up is making it easier to stay in Japan and continue working. Not only would more formal training help make me a more desirable candidate for other ALT jobs, having a Masters degree in TESOL opens up options for temporary post-secondary teaching in Japan. This would make it far easier to keep working in Japan if I wanted to.
If I continue into education as I originally planned, a Masters degree could do two things. First of all, even though the degree would be in English second language acquisition, the skills should be transferable to Japanese. Second, having a Masters degree and a few years teaching experience should make it easier to find work as a teacher in Canada. I’m also told that it can result in a pay bump, which never hurts.
Lastly, if I decide to bypass education and look into special education, it’s possible that a Masters in TESOL and the linguistics coursework that I would complete could help satisfy admissions requirements for programs like speech language pathology. I need to confirm this, but this could make that process much easier.
Best of all, since I can complete the degree online, I can complete the degree now while I’m working in Japan, thus being able to hit the ground running post-JET. This could save me a few years in establishing a career, and if chosen carefully, I can ensure that I am studying at a good school instead of just paying a degree mill.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t aid another option I am looking at; Japanese anthropology. A Masters degree at this point wouldn’t provide many transferable skills nor help set up that career path. This could give me a fall back option while I’m in such a program, being able to teach on the side or continue to find work while doing research.
Sadly, you can’t even drive 88 KM per hour in Hokkaido.
It’s been quite the year, and I can only hope that future years are as productive.
I hope to make a decision on a Masters degree or other professional path in the next several months so that I can get the ball rolling on. I also hope to make some more progress on helping the learning disabled students I work with, as well as further grow my job here. I have a lot of ideas on how to provide more English learning options for both the students and the adults of Kamikawa. And hopefully, I can find more to write about in the meantime.
Some friends came to visit me other the weekend, and one pointed out a blog post about the JET Programme while waiting for their train to arrive. The blog post, titled Why are we here?, shines a critical and rather embittered light on the JET Programme and makes several claims about why it is ineffective.
To be perfectly clear, I do not view JET or the Japanese education system as magic and rainbows. I am also very critical of it, but for different reasons. While this author tells all foreigners to leave Japan because of these same issues, I instead only wish to highlight what pitfalls exist so that future job applicants, visitors, and policy makers can be more prepared to handle the country.
I came to Japan ultimately for two reasons. First of all, I have been emotionally and intellectually invested in Japan for half of my life. From watching anime to studying its imagery and themes, from thinking samurai are cool to researching the religious implications of their training and ideology, and from thinking about Neon Tokyo to seeing a country struggle to face issues common in the developed world, my interest in Japan has grown and evolved over this past decade and a half.
I came to Japan to continue my education and studies and to get a chance to see Japan as it lives and breathes, rather then view it through a textbook or from outdated statements. Working in Japan through the JET Programme allows me to see the country that I have spent so many years learning about and to practice the language I have struggled with for so long. It allows me a chance to continue to grow and evolve my interests.
Only imagine those signs written in Japanese.
The second reason I’ve come to Japan is to establish a professional footing for career development. While the author in question berates foreigners and calls them all unqualified visitors who are taking jobs from trained local teachers, I instead approach this as a professional job which I hope to use to establish a brighter future for me and the family I hope to have one day.
Being an Assistant Language Teacher is the first real professional job I’ve had in my entire life. I’ve done some pretty interesting things and working in jobs that have shaped who I am now, but none have had any professional growth options. I worked for my Students’ Union in university and loved it, but it was an elected position with little direct growth. I’ve also worked in two museums and a library, a field which I keep in my back pocket and one which taught me a great many skills that I still use today. But there are few jobs in the museum world, limited growth, and significant budgetary and cultural struggles that leave the field balancing on a sword’s blade. And I have worked in a number of other positions where I have learned many things but always seemed to hit a sort of glass ceiling.
But working as an ALT is different. There are real stakes in my job and visible goals and successes. The job matters, even if it isn’t handled as well as it could be on a national scale. And when I return to Canada, I will have a wealth of work experience and skills such that I should be able to finally establish a career, something that I struggled to do before JET. I came to Japan because it offered me professional growth that I could not find in Canada.
But coming here has given me another reason to stay. Living and working in Japan allows me to see Japan as it is on many different levels. Living in a small town with one other English-speaking foreigner is a stark contrast from my experience in Canada, and this helps me to understand that the rest of the world isn’t just North American in other places and with different looking people (see my last post for a little more on that topic). It helps me to understand the struggles and sorrows of a proud people who work hard to keep what they have. I get to see a community on the verge of dying do everything it can to make life better while they have the chance. I get to see aspects of Japan that most people simply don’t ever see.
Working in three different schools and visiting three others, I get to see a decent range of Japanese life and observe how people grow into adults. I get to see kids go through similar experiences that I and other Canadian children go through, yet failed to notice when I was in Canada. I get to see things that open my eyes to a greater world, despite being from such a multicultural country. I get to see the good and the bad, the big and the small, and I get to see and appreciate everything as it happens.
Those are the reasons I am here. And while I implore all JET applicants and ALTs to look critically at the country and understand the troubles of this job before it destroys them, I also implore them to think about one thing. In our interviews, Consulate staff, professors, and alumni screened us to find the most flexible, most adaptable applicants for this job. When you come to Japan, you have to remain flexible. You have to learn to roll with the punches or this experience will destroy you. And you have to accept that this is a country that has to learn its own lessons in its own time. If you can’t do this, as I suspect the author of this embittered blog cannot, then this job will destroy you. If you can’t accept this job for what it is and this country for what it is, then you shouldn’t be here because it doesn’t benefit anyone.
The author does ask a valuable question, and one that I think all foreigners in Japan should think about – Why are you here? The answer may be the same or different for each of us, but it is a question that needs to be answered. I know why I am here, and someone else not knowing why they are here isn’t going to detract from my answer or my experiences.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare to do battle with the frost giant that sleeps in my yard, in hopes of reclaiming my lost shed and parking space.
This is something that’s been on my mind for several years. I’m a Canadian, which means (after I moved out of the boonies) I’ve met and worked with a lot of people from other countries. I am also an ex-patriot, someone living in another country, so I can see this from both sides.
Growing up and as an adult, I’m always hearing complaints about foreigners coming to Canada and then not being Canadian enough. They speak their own language, hang out with their own people, and practice their own culture. And man, do Canadians like to complain about this. Damn those foreign devils for coming into our country and not adjusting.
I’ve lived in Japan twice and do the exact same things.
And I call people out on this all the time.
Moving is hard
A lot of us know how hard moving can be. You need to pack up everything you own, take care of a large number of annoying details, and perhaps even living in two places at once or nowhere at all. Moving can be really hard, even if you are prepared for it.
Now try moving to a new country, especially one which shares little in common with your home. Imagine for a moment that everything you know is now wrong. If you’ve moved to somewhere with a different climate, how you handle the seasons is now wrong. If you move somewhere that doesn’t have chain restaurants, you aren’t going to know where a good place to eat is. And now you need to relearn how to live all over again. Sure, you still know some things, but you will be faced with a situation where little of your prior experience is of much help.
This is what it’s like living in another country that is different from your own (heck, this is what it’s like traveling across Canada). The simplest things can be the hardest, like where can you buy milk or how do you pay your electrical bill. It’s like being a small child again, relying on others to help you and teach you everything, except you are old enough not to appreciate it. It can be so frustrating to not know what is happening around you and not know how to do the simplest things. And it’s made even worse if you don’t speak the language.
Languages are Hard
This is the worst feeling ever. Trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language can be the most emotionally damaging thing you will ever have to do. Take all that stuff I said about not understanding simple things and multiply it by 10.
And no, I don’t mean how frustrating it is to speak to someone who doesn’t speak English. I mean how frustrating it is for that person who is trying to speak English. Trying to ask the simplest question or say the easiest words can be really upsetting if you aren’t familiar with the language you are trying to speak, but it’s even worse when you know the language and still can’t do it.
I really don’t think a lot of people move to another country without thinking about it. Most people coming to Canada by choice probably do actually know some English, but their skills and practice with it are often quite small. It can be really upsetting to be trying your hardest to speak in another language, only to be talked to like you are mentally retarded. It’s a huge demotivator to have spent time learning a language, only to be unable to use it. All the time, and maybe money, feels like it was for nothing.
Speaking another language all the time is also mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Try running slowly in place right now, or holding your arm straight out. Easy enough. Now do that for 12 straight hours. Not so easy anymore. Worse, you can only understand this if you have studied a second language. Speaking another language requires your to be constantly on, listening and watching for every cue, constantly thinking in the second language to try and figure out what to say, and trying to figure out how to explain something or dodge a word you don’t understand. This is exhausting. And if someone catches you off guard or when you’re worn out already, it can make the whole process drag its feet. So you find people who speak your language so that you can be understood.
Finding a Community is Hard
That’s why foreigners hang out with other foreigners. Having a shared experience, having a similar culture, sharing the same experience of being in a new country, and speaking the same language means you automatically can have a support network. These other people can empathize with you since they have been through what you are going through or will go through it.
It’s not that foreigners are hanging out with their own community because they refuse to adjust; it’s because they haven’t yet or can’t adjust. It’s not that they refuse to be Canadian, but rather that they don’t know how. But in a community with people of the same nationality or culture and with the same language, you can have an adult conversation with someone and get support from those who understand what you are going though.
This is What My Days are Like
This is what every day is like for me living in Japan. I have spent half my life studying the language and have been here before, yet I still feel like I’m four years old. No matter how much I learn about Japan, there is always some other rules, some other expectation that I haven’t learned yet. And no matter how much Japanese I know, there is always something being said that I don’t understand.
Like I said, the simplest things can be the hardest. I don’t know for certain if I can buy deodorant in my town. I couldn’t figure out where to buy bed sheets. I drove several towns over once to buy hand soap, because I just couldn’t figure out where to buy it locally. I needed someone to show me how to turn my lights on in my apartment. I need someone with me almost every time I go to the bank. It’s awful, and that’s just the cultural upbringing part of things.
Linguistically, I barely get by sometimes. I still have trouble when I go to a fast food restaurant and they ask me if I am staying or going. I got into a car accident, and started texting my English speaking friends because I didn’t have the slightest idea how to explain anything that happened. Literally, any single word necessary to explain a car crash except for “police” and “driver’s licence;” I just didn’t know any of the vocabulary or grammar needed to explain this.
And since it is so hard to have anything more than a 2 minute conversation with someone, I spend a lot of time around other foreigners, doing foreign things and cooking foreign meals. I’m not hanging around with foreigners because I am withdrawing from Japan, but because I can’t function as a Japanese person 100% of the time and need the supports of those who share my experience.
Whenever I bring this up with people (usually those complaining about those damn stupid foreigners they have to deal with), they always try to backpedal, saying that it’s different with me because I was a student, or am working in a specific occupation. But it really isn’t different. Me speaking English, even to people who don’t speak it back, and hanging out with white people all the time is no different than a Chinese or Portuguese person speaking their native language and spending time with other Chinese or Portuguese friends. There’s a huge double standard that somehow makes it ok for me to do it, but not ok when someone does it in Canada. My situation is really no different than any expat, and I’m a government employee to boot.
Change is Hard
Next time you meet someone from another country, don’t groan and get pissed off because their English sucks. And don’t speak loudly and slowly; none of that helps and it really just makes them feel like a piece of shit.
The next time your meet someone from another country, be calm and patient. You might need to explain things three or four times to get around missing grammar and vocabulary. You might need to say something wrong, more complex, or completely unintuitive to explain something, since they may not understand the word you think is simple. If they don’t know what something means, being an asshole about it isn’t going to help.
Try not to criticize people for spending time with their own community instead of your people. They’re probably doing it because they don’t know anyone else or know what to do. Instead, invite them to something you are doing. Even if they are quiet, they probably appreciate seeing something new or just being a part of a normal activity. Offer to help, offer to show them things and take them places, no matter how basic they are. Just like how you might tour around a visiting family member, someone from another country would appreciate knowing where things are and seeing new things.
Remember that everything you know about living in a particular area was probably learn since birth. I remember a story in university about someone who came to a western country and stood on top of the toilet instead of sitting, since that’s what was done in their country and they didn’t understand how to use it differently. Try and imagine how embarrassing it is to not even know how to use the bathroom. The simplest things you know may not be universal across the world, so you can’t take for granted that everyone is going to know how everything in your country works.
Remember that someone from a foreign country is in fact from a foreign country, and that you should be open-minded and helpful where possible. It can be an absolutely overwhelming experience, and they probably appreciate it. I know I do.
I started writing an post on racism and the double standard for how we treat foreigners in Canada, but I thought that was depressing as fuck for Christmas day.
So let’s talk about mochi.
A lot of ALTs and other expats complain about having to work Christmas day, since it isn’t a holiday in Japan. What it is though (at least this year) is the last day of school before winter break and the New Year, the far more important holiday for Japanese people. So when I walked into work today, I was invited to visit the elementary school to make mochi.
Mochi is a kind of Japanese dessert that is made from pounding freshly cooked rice into a kind of dough. You then dress it with various seasonings and eat it. Mochi is often made towards the New Year (I think specifically on New Year’s Eve or Day). But since this was the last day of school, we did it there.
That sort of gets the idea across.
The kids had a “half day” (if you can even call it that) of doing worksheets and other light classwork before heading to the big room we were making mochi in. Seniors from the community brought in stoves and pots and bags of rice and started getting things ready, making the first few batches of mochi before the kids would arrive around 10ish.
Holy shit, are these old people ripped. One guy, probably 10 years my dad’s senior, probably pounded half of the rice in a carved out tree stump using a giant wooden mallet. This guy could probably kick my ass, all of the teachers asses, and then go sumo wrestling. Meanwhile, someone else was splashing water into the stump so the rice/mochi didn’t stick and would reach in between blows to flip or fold the mochi.
What the Heck is Japanese Christmas?
I did do something for Christmas that was kind of Japanese. KFC is pretty big here, and people with reserve a bucket of chicken for Christmas to eat along side their special Christmas cake. And no, I don’t mean a fruit cake. Like, think a strawberry shortcake.
Again, Japan’s crazy.
I asked around, with C’s help, about where would be a good place to order such a cake, and I was pointed to a local bakery. I was told they use all local ingredients, so that’s about as small town of a cake as I’d be able to find. I then swung past Seicomart, a chain of convenience stores, and bought two little containers of fried chicken and the most expensive 500 yen bottle of wine they had.
There are many things wrong with that last statement, including 500 yen wine not being very good.
My actual dinner.
After I got home, I waited a bit to eat, then warmed up my chicken, poured some cheap convenience store wine, and watched some YouTube. I then ate a quarter of the cake before playing a video game.
Is Japanese Christmas Depressing?
Not really. While a lot of people have trouble being away for the holidays, I don’t invest that much into them. Christmas for me is having supper with my family. But since they aren’t here, there really isn’t anything in the holiday for me to worry about.
The other part of the question is working on Christmas. Again, meaningless. I’m going to go home and Skype with my brother and his family, and later try to call my parents. But since it isn’t Christmas yet in Canada, the day has no meaning here. Sure, I could have taken the day off, but what would I have done? It’s not like I go to church, and there’s no one to celebrate with.
Do I hate that Christmas is Japan is this twisted abomination that borders on sacrilege? Nope. Actually, I think it’s pretty funny. Japan isn’t a Christian or a western country, so why should it celebrate Christmas? Today is just another day in the year, regardless of it’s meaning in my country. And even if it had a lot of meaning for me, it’s not like I could do much about it.
So instead, I ate chicken and cake, and watched unassumingly ripped old men pound the shit out of pot after pot of rice to make treats for the kids. How’s that for Christmas?
This is a follow-up to another post, What I could never get away with in Canada. In thinking of what to write there (oh so long ago), I found myself noting other rather strange things that take place elsewhere in Japan. Some are funny, some are annoying, some just are. I’ve had to actually split this, since the list was getting long and I’m still working on a few items.
So let’s get this ball rolling.
Obligatory Toilet Comment
This one’s pretty high up on the list of weird bullshit I keep having to deal with. Washiki toilets are a traditional style of toilet in Japan. Different from the poop analyzing robot toilets that we all know and love, which have heated seats, are self sanitizing, play music for discrete disposal, and clean you (I’m literally not making any of this this up), washiki toilets require the user to squat over top like some kind of animal.
Because it wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have a comparison shot.
Ok. I should be fair, since I guess these kinds of toilets are pretty common around the world. But not in Canada! So every time I’m presented with one of these things, I kinda tilt my head in confusion, decide that I don’t need this in my life right now, and then look for a western style toilet.
Anyways, these are pretty common still, for god knows what reason. You’ll see them in malls and office buildings, and in many tourist areas like hiking rest stops and at temples and shrines. But often there will be a western toilet in the next stall over, so it’s not that big a deal.
When I started in the Junior High, where I teach three days out of the week, I was presented with a rather unpleasant shock; the staff bathroom only has washiki toilets and the student bathroom was under construction. I half joked, saying that I simply wouldn’t have to go that badly, noting that I pretty much refuse to cross that line unless I absolutely have to.
It’s not like I don’t understand how to use these kinds of toilets. They are pretty simple after all, and we did talk about them in my Japanese classes in high school. I just refuse to use one when at all possible. I live in the 21st century, where mind blowing advances in science and technology pretty much take place on a weekly basis. In this 21st century, I shouldn’t have to shit into a freaking hole in the ground.
Update (from when I started writing this): About a week ago, I finally broke down while at a bar. As I suspected, it wasn’t that awful. But as I suspected, I am not in love with these monsters and still refuse to use them where there is literally any option not to use one.
A stark contrast to the previous weird thing, Japan is known for the mad test-taking skills of their students. But there are a few funny things about the tests.
First off, multiple choice tests seem to be done primarily in katakana, one of the script writing systems in Japanese. Instead of choices being listed as A, B, C, D, and so on, I keep seeing Japanese tests list answers in katakana and according to Japanese writing mechanics. So instead of following the alphabet, answers are listed like this:
ア (a) イ (i) ウ (u) エ (e) オ (o) カ (ka) キ (ki)
And so on. I guess it’s not that surprising that another language has different ways of doing things. It’s just one of those head tilt moments while you process what’s happening. Although I do see alphabetic tests as well.
Something else with tests is the quality of production. In Canada, any time I had a test in school, it was always in black and white, probably photocopied a zillion times, and mostly plain text with minimal decoration. Maybe there was a table with simple black lines, maybe there was a little matching drawing, but everything was pretty ghetto. And if we had a short quiz or a listening test, it was usually done on on our own paper.
Nope. Japan. Clearly not to be outdone by the West, Japanese tests seem to be pretty all out. Full color pages, elaborate graphics, page dressings, the works. And good paper. Like, really high quality, fairly thick stock. Even the simplest worksheet or quiz (which is premade by the teacher and is far more than a simple lined table) is well made and printed on quality stock. Even the most simple, non-dressed up test is well made compared to some of the carp I saw in Canada at every level of education.
Oh Japan. You almost make test taking fun.
Another fun school topic is school lunches. In the West, this conjures up images of cafeteria line ups, a noisy room filled with screaming kids of really any age who are either fighting, smoking, gambling, or all three, and something like poutine or a cafeteria tray with a single fish stick and something resembling fruit.
And as for teachers and school staff, perhaps they bring some lavish meal in and eat it in their office or teachers’ lounge, next to the bottle of desk bourbon they need to get through the day. Nope. Not in Japan. Well, I guess you could bring your own meal, but that’s not the point.
In Japan, there is this thing called kyushoko. This is a pre-prepared lunch that all students and teachers eat, perhaps prior to high school but including kindergartens and daycares. And I don’t mean just lunch. No. It’s far more complicated than that. Kyoshoku is a fixed activity in schools, carefully fashioned by a company in town to meet the dietary requirements of students. Certain mandates dictate the specific caloric intake of each meal and the kinds of foods to be made available, and this seems to be taken pretty seriously. But strap in. It gets weirder.
So kyushoku arrives some time in the mid-morning, freshly prepared at the kyushoku centre, the separate and dedicated building used for the administration, preparation, and distribution of these lunches to the surrounding schools. The food is transported in massive metal containers, which are all individually labeled and portioned for each class (or teachers’ office). The food is then brought to each class and portioned out by the students, where it is eaten in their classroom (more on that in a moment). Kyushoku is also delivered with the appropriate dishes, dense plastic trays and bowls which are quite hilarious and age inappropriate; ours have little pictures of balloons and flowers on them.
This one’s a bit more involved than my lunches (no tea), but you can get the idea. Also, bonus points for the giraffe milk that 50 year old men have to drink.
This is where it gets a little crazy. Don’t like something in your kyushoku? Too bad. Kids are encouraged to eat their entire meal, being taught from an early age not to be picky eaters. Want something more, like a snack or a something to drink besides the individual milk? Try again. As a toss up between food allergies and healthy eating, it is heavily discouraged that you ever bring other food with you. Think you’ll get a larger meal because you’re a full sized adult? Not so much. Teachers and staff eat the same portions as the kids, which can be as small as around 500 calories in elementary, though we sometimes have a little bit left over (emphasis on little).
Not my students, but this gives you a bit of an idea how this plays out.
Moving along, The kids dish up one another in this hive-mind fashion that could only take place in Japan or prison. Their teacher also dishes up, and everyone waits until everyone is seated and ready. One student will then call out each item (more at elementary than junior high) before calling out itadakimasu and everyone starts eating. If you’re not eating with the kids, you’ll be in the teachers’ office with a number of other staff, where things are a little less gonzo… like, no unison itadakimasu chant or calls to make sure everyone has every item.
Once done, regardless of where you ate, everyone fills up the containers with the used dishes, packs everything up, and, get this, washes and then flattens their milk carton. Seriously. This is crazy, even for a culture that is big on recycle. And no, I don’t mean flatten like crushed. I mean, half the time, milk cartons are literally opened up, pulled apart, and laid flat. Shit’s crazy, and surprisingly hard to do. Obviously, all Japanese people know how to actually unfold all the seams in some perfect reverse-origami fashion, not simple tear them open with my barbarian fists like I did for the first month. I kind of have the hang of this now, but I still end up tearing the thing open like a damn animal half the time.
Oh, remember how I said that kyushoku was a fixture in school? So important is it for the kids to eat together and fill their various roles, that when I asked about starting an English lunch group once a week or so, I was shot down. It is more important that these kids take part in the kyushoku performance than it is they receive extra help or recreation.
Anyways, bizarre as it may be, kyushoku is actually pretty cool. It means I don’t have to prepare a lunch everyday, and it gives people a chance to eat a variety of food. Especially for foreign teachers, this is great exposure to a variety of Japanese dishes and sides that you simply don’t get when eating out. Eating with the kids is also a good chance to spend time with them, while eating with the staff shows you a little of what Japanese office life is like.
Image not found
This one goes a little further, so I thought I would touch on it. Aside from the bizarrity and comedic value of this as a whole, something about this puzzles me. See, I was under them impression that Japanese people aren’t big dairy eaters. Most parts of Japan are quite small and thus there isn’t a lot of room for dairy cattle, so it’s just not a part of their lives. But I was also under the impression that Japanese people are a little lactose intolerant (like, more than normal). Aside from ice cream, there really isn’t any diary around, and it isn’t a part of daily cuisine. Yet every day, every kid and their teachers has a decent sized carton of milk.
Oh yeah. And there’s a special tab you have to open to push the elabprately collapsing straw into. Don’t bother trying to tear it open like we do in Canada and drink from the spout. Only failure lies that way.
Japanese classrooms, and schools, are pretty similar to the West, but also pretty different. The chalkboards can go up, down, and turn (they probably are heated and squirt water at you too). There are these chalk brush cleaners in every room, and all rooms at every level have coat racks and cubby holes for students to use. But those are only aesthetic differences. There is an entirely different culture surrounding the classroom that’s quite different than in the West.
Anyone moderately versed in Japanese culture probably knows that the kids stay in their homeroom and the teachers move around (whereas in my Canadian junior high and high schools, the students are the ones who move from class to class). And you probably heard that students clean the school themselves. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Da na na na, dee
See, Japanese students are the masters of their domain. The classroom is theirs, not the teacher’s. It is there home, their community, and their responsibility. This is why the kids eat lunch in the classroom. This is why the teachers are the ones who move. This is why students stand up during class to greet or dismiss the teachers every period. This is why the teacher doesn’t clean the chalkboard. This is why the students clean. When you walk into a Japanese classroom, it’s like walking into a kid’s bedroom, except with no rock posters, less clothing on the floor, and hopefully no porn hidden under the chairs. You are on their turf, and there is a whole culture and community at work.
That’s pretty weird and different from Canada. Sure, we had homeroom when I was a kid, and students made noise and hung out during class breaks. But it was never our space or our time. The classroom belonged to the school and the teachers, and desks and chairs were up for grabs by whoever sat in them or took them. Even if you have a seating plan, you could take any chair or desk and move it around. Oh yeah. Japanese students have their own desk and chair… like, their name is on it, making it theirs.
Last one about school… I think.
So when you think of the teachers’ lounge/office/whatever you want to call it, you probably think of something like this:
You are probably thinking this is where the teachers go to blow off stream, have a stress smoke, or even get a swig of sweet office whiskey. You are probably also thinking that it’s this forbidden zone where no child shall enter.
Nope. You’d be wrong.
What you’ll find is this:
All the teachers and staff sit in a single room (usually) with their desks facing each other. Papers are strewn everywhere, CD players and extension cords thrown around the room like toilet paper rolls, and at least one teacher whose desk looks more like a box fort than a piece of office furniture (so I guess it is kind of what you’d expect). In fact, this is about what every Japanese office looks like.
Oh yeah, and the students come and go pretty regularly. They always wait by the door until invited in, but the fact that a child can come and go as they please is truly bizarre, given how off limits these places are in Canada.
Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of weirdness. It’s an office and people work there Of note though are the mancatchers. Yeah. Mancatcher. In ever school’s office, there is a steel pole with a curved ring on it, literally used to subdue a dangerous person (or play pranks on the other staff). There are also separate entrances for staff and students. The staff door is usually right next to the office, while the student’s entrance is a ways away. For those, there are even specific doors for specific grades. The grade 1 students at my elementary use a specific pair of doors, while the grade 2’s use a specific pair of doors that are right next to the grade 1’s, the grade 3’s… You get the idea. There are 6 sets of doors that are specific to the grades, and never shall a student use the wrong door.
You shall not pass!
That’s about it for this installment. In the next post, I’ll hopefully talk about how lazy Japanese kids don’t get jobs, how everyone in Japan is a raging alcoholic and refuses to admit it, laugh at Japan thinking it’s in the centre of the world, and start foaming at the mouth when I talk about banking.
I’m a bit under the weather right now. Literally. It’s been snowing again, and everything around me is covered in 3 feet of snow.
But I’m also feeling sick.
Japan. Even the face masks are robots.
Lately, I’ve been waking up with a really sore throat and having trouble breathing. I’ve also been getting migraines again (unrelated, but more proof that I am actually 100 years old). Before you lose your mind or tell me to consult a mortician, I should note that I’m asthmatic, so this is basically Wednesday for me. Not breathing is probably my most notable skill, beating out most of my hobbies and my mad karaoke skills.
Being sick in Japan
So there’s this hilarious past time in Japan, where sick people go to work anyways. Screw personal health. This bugs a lot of foreigners, who lash out at this Sniffling, Sneezing, Coughing, Aching, Stuffyhead, Fever, So-You-Can-Keep-Working attitude because they are infecting everyone around them.
But there are a few reasons for this. Aside from the whole “working yourself to death” thing that we all love about Japan, taking a sick day is a very strange thing in Japan. Between perhaps not actually having sick leave to the need to save face and champ through it, Japanese people can be pretty stubborn when it comes to this. It seems like it is more important to show up than it actually is to do something, so showing up to work with a broken femur and internal bleeding gets you some sick participation points.
Why is everything so damn bright?!
A migraine, not my Professor Xavier impression.
Let’s start with the migraines. I had a string of migraines a few weeks ago (still do, but it’s manageable again). For those who haven’t experienced the joy and serenity a migraine, imagine a toddler doing a drum solo on your pots during a marathon race right outside your door with flood lights pouring in through your windows, all while nursing the worst hangover you’ve had since that party where tried to make love to the hallway plant (man, that plant was attractive). And my migraines aren’t even that bad; I hear some people even get nauseous and physically sick.
So anyways, I’m sitting my my office with the brightness of my laptop turned to “off,” able to hear the colors of the wallpaper, and trying not to die. But I only had an hour left, so hey, party on. One of the office staff told me, when I tried to explain to her what was happening, that I should immediately leave and go to the hospital.
You know, a full out nuclear strike being Japan’s first and only response to… anything. I’m like “no, it’s just a migraine. I’ll buy some ibuprofen after work.” But not. That’s not good enough. Word spreads, and I have about 6 people trying to shove me out the door, telling me I should go to the hospital. After getting the point across that I was not going to the hospital over a migraine, they shifted focus and just told me to go home.
This pretty much continued for the next hour, including a phone call to my predecessor, C, who then called me from his work and told me that I should go home (for fear that there was a language barrier here, and “go home” and “no” weren’t clear enough). Anyways, I dug in and refused to leave, since by this point, there was only about 15 minutes left anyways.
Following work, I drove to the drug store, bought some ibuprofen, hated life a little while as I drove home, then started eating the ibuprofen like candy. Oh yeah. Medicine in Japan is bullshit. I usually take 400mg once or twice a day for a migraine. Good ol’ Japan only seems to carry 100 or 150mg dosages, complete with the pharmacist telling me to only take 3 in one day.
My Probably Lung Infection
This time, I’ve had the foresight to not say anything, since normal people would in fact go to the hospital over respiratory problems. But not an asthmatic. Well, that’s not true. I actually did go to the hospital over this… in Canada. See, I’ve been having this kind of breathing problems for quite a while now. I was getting regular treatment and was seeing a lung specialist for over a year. Things stabilized to the point where I could put on pants without having to rest, and we all high-fived.
Man, math is exhausting.
But then I came to Japan and fell off the wagon. Because screw oxygen. Who needs that anyways. As I usually do (much to the disapproval of my doctors), I hate taking a preventative inhaler every day, so I kinda sorta stopped. Not, like, kids hate having to eat there vegetables. I don’t like taking it because it’s a powerful steroid with a very high daily dosage. It’s also expensive as fuck, costing about $100 per month, based on my prescription.
So here I am, getting winded simply from waking up. And I’m like “screw this. Going to work.” I’ve started taking my inhaler again, hoping to try and get ahead of this, but I feel like crap in the meantime.
I think I’m turning Japanese
I wanna believe that I’ve made this joke before.
So a logical human being would stay home, go to the hospital, or consider a last rite. But since I’m been fighting this particular dragon my whole life, not being able to breathe registers with some concern, but usually less concern than a tiny bird flying around the same room I’m in in a panic. Fuck that bird. That was terrifying. I think I peed myself.
No. I just keep trucking on, doubling over when no one’s looking like I have a 12 pack a day habit, and pretending that I’m not dying.
Why the hell am I doing this? Well, aside from not thinking it’s a big deal, I don’t particularly want this to be a big deal. To go to the hospital or take some sick time would mean that there is a serious problem. It would upset everyone at work, screw with everyone, and take the English speaker out of the classroom.
There’s also nothing to be gained from taking time off. Let’s say this were a lung infection (which it isn’t. It god damn isn’t). As an asthmatic, this isn’t something I’d be able to shake with just face mask and some rice porridge. Any illness this rotting bag of meat catches tends to stick around for ever, and taking time off for a lung infection would quickly amount to a month. Taking one day off really isn’t going to have any effect.
So just like a Japanese person, I’ve come to work with what other people would immediately identify as an illness and just kept working.
Err… the other kind of… No. This is what Japanese salary men look like.
And you know what? I kind of get why they do it. It’s such a hassle to be such a selfish diva and take time off. The burden I’d place on everyone, the hassle I will get for it later, the approximately 3800 Japanese people stopping me in the grocery store every day to see if I’m feeling better. I don’t need that. It’s charming and sweet, but I really don’t need that in my life.
I mean, I wrapped my finger in tape because it hurts a little when I bend it (I’m just being a baby about that one), and I had about 8 students ask me first thing in the morning if I was ok. Imagine what would happen if I went to the hospital for breathing problems.
Nope. Not happening. Just gotta nut up and keep going, just like a Japanese person. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna lie down for a minute. Typing is surprisingly exhausting. I just need to catch my breath.
As I continue my fight against the fantastic beast known as the Japanese language, I’m always in search of new ways to try and approach the language. In the past, I’ve been studying in a class, so I have a fairly well rounded education. But I’m now on my own, and I can’t seem to make a lot of progress. Worse, I know why.
Can you use that in a sentence?
There are untold numbers of gimmicks and plots that young learners will use to try and learn Japanese. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that any of these work; if it there was some magic trick or dodge, wouldn’t we have all done it? No, I think it all comes down to rolling up you sleeves and getting to work, and a lot of people seem to agree with me.
More to the point, a lot of the tactics employed by learners of all ages is to grind through lists of things, learning each painful item one flashcard at a time or by writing it out a thousand times. However, I’ve come to learn (through self reflection and from the advice of others) that this doesn’t work well. Learning grammar, vocabulary, and Chinese characters (kanji) one item at a time is simply a waste of time, since you lack the context of how it is used. You can spend weeks learning all of the readings, meaning, and components of just one character, or you can do something else.
You can work smart.
Instead of learning item by item, since that really has never worked, I am trying to learn Japanese as it is found in the wild. I am not going to learning kanji by memorizing characters, I am going to learn words. I’m not going to learn new vocabulary by reciting a flashcard hundreds of times, because that never seems to stick. Instead, I am going to learn words through sentences, using context and cues the reinforce the meaning. And I’m not going to slog my way through a grammar book, but will instead use those same sentences to see examples of grammar and learn by example.
And it really works
I’ve been spending that last few months on different language experiments. For example, I just made some grammar flashcards to review old grammar points that I have long ago forgotten. But instead of writing a single character on a card and then trying to define it, I did something different.
I’m learning the grammar from the sentence.
And it worked. I was able to go through the almost 40 sentences for the flashcards I made, and understood far more than the majority. Even though I don’t remember the grammar points, even with grammar I’ve been using wrong, and without once reviewing them since I made flashcards the day before, I understood what was written.
When it comes to kanji, I spend several weeks running an experiment on word compounds (words that use multiple characters). Instead of learning a character in isolation, I was learning one word that used it, but was also learning all of the characters in that word as well. This was working to an extent, and I picked up a few words, but one problem prevented it was being a true success; context. Looking at my grammar flashcards, I was able to, more often than not, read an unfamiliar word from the context of the sentence. A great example is my card for “describing how an action is performed.” My example sentence was something like “I can swim like a fish,” but I couldn’t read the character for swim. But I knew “fish” as well as the grammar, so I was able to figure out that the unreadable character meant “swim.”
Hurray for proofs of concept.
Blog! You said blog! What’s this about a blog!?
Since I like to tell stories, that requires another detour before I can come around and explain what I’m thinking. My brain is funny like that.
I’m a kinesthetic/tactile learner. That means I learn by doing things. What that also means is that I don’t learn by seeing or hearing, as proven by my inability to pick up any co-workers’ or students’ names, or my inability to pull new words out of speech. No, I learn by doing, and unfortunately, that kinda means writing (which I’m beyond not good at).
So here’s what I’m thinking. I want to start a second blog, strictly for practicing Japanese. Now, that’s probably a terrible idea, given how backlogged I am here. But hear me out.
Someone on Reddit suggested a language practice thread. I said (in Japanese) that I thought it was a good idea, and that we should do it. And then I was immediately pissed off by it. See, I just want to use Japanese; I don’t necessarily want people correcting it, since correct just means you are wrong and over correction is the death of language learning. I quickly ended up going on to explain why I did X or Y, right or wrong, and was trying to explain that I am shooting for comprehension rather than 100% accuracy. Plus, everyone was using kanji, and Reddit’s system for including the readings for kanji is tedious at best. Thus, it slowed down my production and made it difficult to read theirs, since I was the only one using this system.
No. I want something a little different. While I’m happy to get feedback, I really only want feedback when a mistake causes a breakdown in communication. I do not want every single mistake or alternate particle use to be called into question. I do not want to worry about 100% production. I want to do Japanese, and everyone else can be damned. If I get a correction, I’ll look at it, but I don’t want to have to spend more time correcting and explaining my shitty Japanese than I am trying to produce it, because that will only get me so far.
Another issue with something like Reddit is that I would need to produce sentences with a certain amount of value or content. That’s also kind of not the point. While I want to practice stringing longer sentences and paragraphs together and creating more consistent language use, I am more interested in production than storytelling at this point. That means I am more interested in keyboard babbling about random topics and using unrelated sentences as I work my way through Japanese. If I post, say, six sentences that make no sense, using new grammar and vocab, I don’t want people bothering me about how stupid or confusing they sound because they have nothing to do with anything.
Soo… Why not just use a notebook?
Well, there are two answers. The first is that I am a young folk and like computers. Doing a blog or something on Twitter (another possibility) just fits me like a glove. I’m also a masochist, so I want this to be as complicated as possible.
But more importantly, I do want the ability to have feedback, should anyone care to give it. I just don’t want constant correction. Having something online will allow me to incite some feedback while at the same time creating an example of how I’m learning. If someone asks me how I’m learning, I can link them to the blog instead of trying to explain that I am basically just using Japanese. If I want someone to check my work, I need only send a friend the link instead of having to type out hand written work and then find a way to get it to them.
Ok. I get it. But why another blog?
Good question, dear reader. Ironically, I am a very visual person, despite being terrible at visual learning skills. I have this image in my head of what I want this exercise to look like… And it’s messy. I want this blog here to be a general blog about JET, living in Japan, and about learning Japanese, not to be filled with random and probably incorrect sentences as I learn Japanese. To do everything under one roof, I’m concerned that it’s going to get messy and make this blog inaccessible, forcing English language posts about Japan to be lost among piles of nonsense and experimentation.
I’m also pondering doing something over Twitter, though I’m not sure if that has the effect I want. I likewise don’t want to blast my followers with random bullshit in Japanese several times a day. But maybe they want that, I dunno.
What I’m thinking is that I want this practice to be self contained. I want to keep on with my normal-ish life and be able to interject some Japanese as needed without it overtaking my life. I don’t want to embarrass myself as potential JETs find this place and then laugh at my shitty language skills, nor do I want to make this blog inaccessible to those visitors, causing them to have to sort through tons and tons of posts to find something in English.
Floggings? Twits? YourTubes (probably not)? What do you think?
Now for the audience participation part of the exercise. What do you think? Do you want to see me fumble through Japanese here? Do you want me to send regular derps on Twitter? Does a separate and contained blog sound like a good idea? Do you have a batter idea? Leave a comment. For the love of god, someone leave a comment. It’s lonely here, and I think there are wolves.
There’s no hiding that Japan is a different place. Being a country of historic isolation, Japan followed largely it’s own path when compared to the West. Having its own completely different history, language, and culture, it is no surprise that Japanese people do some things differently.
But man, oh man, are some things right out there. And that’s today’s topic.
As an aside, this post is a little photo light. This is one of those Big Bang Theory-like moments when you realize that Googling “how to excite 14 year old girls” is a terrible idea.
1. Telling your students where you live
To be clear, this is more that everyone already knows where I live than me telling students, but the effect is still the same. In the West, there is a separation between public and private times and spaces. For a teacher, they are a teacher at school and a person at home (lies, I know. We all grew up thinking they slept in the gym at night). But in Japan, I’m kind of a teacher all the time, and that’s not a stab at Japan’s office culture.
Now, there is a certain limit to how far personal information should and would go, but there is a stronger sense of familiarity and normality surrounding my job here. In Canada, I would probably take great effort to separate my work and home life, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue here. All the kids already know where I live, so there is little point in keeping that secret. But them knowing doesn’t seem to be an issue either.
2. Hang around with the student
This is where things start to become very clearly different. I’ve had a number of situations where you could say that I was spending time with my students.
The first was when one of my students saw me leave my apartment. I was heading downtown to catch the train, and we walked together and tried to talk to one another. Another time was when a bunch of my students saw me at a town festival and wanted to come over. Most were saying hi or asking what I’d done at the festival, but some stuck around for a half hour or longer. We talked, told jokes, and messed around in a normal and health way (I’m going to come back to this one a few times).
In Canada and probably most other parts of the world, this would be inappropriate for a number of reasons. Stranger danger aside, any parent would probably shoo their kids away, telling them not to bother me. Not in Japan (at least to an extent, they do shoo their kids away when I’m buying groceries). One of my co-workers invited me over to spend the day with his family, and most of that was spent with his kids. It was just a natural course of action that took place.
Another time was when a hurricane was rolling through… all of Japan. A bunch of the kids were inside for club activities, and they were kind of just hanging out in the halls. I think I spent a good half hour over there, telling jokes, issuing challenges like knuckle pushups, and otherwise messing with them. I didn’t have any work for the day and their club activities were kind of a wash, so we just spent some time together.
That, or I have a bunch of candy stuck to my ass, and the kids are chasing it.
3. Playing with the student
This is where the stranger danger starts to kick in, and a huge difference between Canada and Japan. Between classes, the students will mess around, wrestle, and get up to no good. And more often then not, I find myself right in the middle of it. Pretending to feed a kid punches while another is holding them down, tickling one another, teasing one of the kids who hurt his hand about how he should stop picking fights in school… I even flipped a girl upside down and held her there for a minute. This is all really normal behaviour I’ve heard and seen from other ALTs and keeps kind of getting thrust onto me.
In Canada, I’d probably be disciplined or told to back off, but in Japan, it’s just something that happens.
4. Affectionate or physical touching
The alarm bells are screaming on this one, and this is actually something I was quite unsure of when I started working here. My students will literally run towards me to give me a hug and hang off of me for lengths of time. Kids will hug me and call me their friend, tickle me, rub my stomach, but thankfully not koncho me. I can basically not go a day without some kid under the age of 14 or so giving me a hug.
While everything else would get a strange look in Canada, this would probably cost me my job, even though I’m not the one doing it. Because of that, I’ve been very uncertain about how to handle this. With the smaller kids, I’ll usually rest my arm on their head, and I’ll usually move and put my arm around the shoulder of the older kids. But still, this is really out there and could be a little uncomfortable if you weren’t used to it.
But… But why?
A lot of this behaviour can be really jarring, but it seems to come from cultural differences, the different roles of teachers, and differences in child rearing than in the West.
First, I am a magical wizard. As one of now two Caucasians in the town, something that most people here have literally never seen before, I am a glowing beacon of difference. Everyone wants to interact with me because it is such a rare treat. Never before have they seen two foreigners who know each other occupy the same space.
Second is the role of teachers in Japan. Teachers play a very different role in childhood development here, bordering on caregiver and guardian. If a kid misses school, their teacher will check up on them to make sure they’re ok. Teachers will also do home visits to get to know the student and their families, as well as their home life and environment. While I’m not expected to do these kind of things, it does highlight that knowledge and affection to and from a teacher aren’t that unusual here.
Third is the role of an ALT. I was basically hired to play games with kids and be white, so it’s a natural extension of my job to have a different and more casual relationship than the other teachers would. I’m supposed to bring excitement and humour into an otherwise dry and painful class, so telling the kids jokes and teasing them about things is kind of my job.
Fourth is something I wasn’t really aware of prior to returning to Japan again. When I asked my predecessor about the hugging, he told me that there are a lot of really bizarre things at odds here. He said that kids, especially males, don’t get a lot of physical affection at home, so it’s a really positive thing for the boys to run over, hug me, and tell everyone else that I’m their friend. But more important is the separation of safe and dangerous physical contact, a separation that doesn’t really exist in Canada anymore. Here, the students hugging me or me messing around with them is just normal. But in Canada or the US, that is deviant behaviour and automatically a signal of trouble, for some reason. Everyone is so afraid to have physical contact that any contact is deemed to be dangerous, but in Japan, they are just starved of it.
I should note that there are still lines that separate behaviour. While I might tickle a boy that’s hanging off of me, I’ll give a girl a high five or fist bump. And while I might run over to a boy who’s having his arms held and pretend to punch him a few times, I’ll go over to one of the girl’s who’s drawing and tell her how good it looks, or join then in their game of “hold the door shut on the other girl.” I’m never the instigator of the physical contact, as I shouldn’t be. So there is definitely boundaries and appropriateness still in play here.
I guess the other thing to remember is that this is a very special kind of job and these things would only happen in Japan as an ALT. Everything would still hold true, but the relationships and the expression of them would take a different form. It is because I am an ALT that makes this ok. I’ve heard a few times that being an ALT means that you are a little outside of the system and have a chance to shake things up a little and go off script. Because I am not one of their Japanese teachers, it’s ok for the kids to hug me and rub my belly. And because I’m not one of their Japanese teachers, it’s ok for me to poke them back or hold the door shut on them.
A little while ago, I was asked to help out some students with their presentations. All of the grade 8 students were writing Silver Week holiday recommendations for me, but a handful hadn’t finished. Since the group was pretty small, I ended up helping one student almost exclusively.
This student, who I’ll call Kevin, was having a really hard time writing in English and was thus slower than his classmates in completing his presentation. Just about all of the work was already there, but he was taking much longer to write it. I did my best to help him out and correct a few mistakes he made so that he could do well in delivering his presentation. Basically, that was that, and I walked away having done my job.
Fast forward a few days, and my brain almost broke. The class was working on a translation assignment, and I couldn’t help but notice that Kevin was working a bit more slowly. But there were other kids who were working slow or being lazy, so I thought nothing of it… until I noticed more things.
In no particular order, I started to see some unusual behaviour. Kevin was overwriting when making corrections. From time to time, different letters or parts of them were darker, having been written over more than once. I didn’t really see him doing this in Japanese, but he was over-correcting when I saw him make a mistake (he tried overwriting, but then erased the whole word to write it again). I also noticed that he was getting help from the student next to him, and even seemed to have some trouble copying the Japanese the other student was writing, as if he needed more time to work. I also noticed that when he wrote in English, he was writing letter by letter, with irregular spacing in between each letter. It was here that I started to think harder. See, when Kevin was working in the computer lab on his presentation, he was hunting and pecking as he typed. He was processing the language letter by letter, just like how he was writing.
On it’s own, none of this looks that odd. Maybe his motivation is down. Maybe he’s just not very good at English. But no. Now I was seeing something. I had a hunch that something else was happening.
So I kept walking around the class, but paid more attention to see how everyone else was doing. Patterns started to form as I looked at the other students’ writing and behaviour. What immediately popped out was the clarity of everyone’s writing. In a grade 8 class, after only a year and a little of formal English education, you’d expect to see some students having messy writing, but it didn’t stop there. Nearly every single student had a pattern. The kids who wrote messy in English were also writing messy in Japanese, while those with neat writing continued to have neat writing in both languages. But Kevin’s writing was inconsistent. His Japanese was really good, but his English was messy and spaced out, unlike what I was seeing from everyone else.
Again, not really anything by itself, until I looked closer. Kevin was trying, unlike other students working at the same pace who were joking around or sleeping. There was more too it. Kevin has really inconsistent writing in both English and Japanese. As he wrote, his writing kind of wandered along the lines, moving up and down with no real pattern. It’s as if the line were bending or he couldn’t actually write along them straightly. And I recall that during an earlier speaking repetition exercise, I could no longer hear Kevin’s voice, as if he’d become lost.
And that’s when I knew I was onto something. I picked up on Kevin’s behaviour because I do the same things. I hunt and peck as I type, I sometimes struggle with writing in a straight line, I overwrite like crazy, I struggle when writing in Japanese and almost do so character by character, and I needed extra time in school to process what’s happening so I can complete my assignments. I have trouble reading along with text and can get lost easily in a difficult task. I do many of the same things, and this resonated with me.
I remember being a kid, struggling through school with two parents with wildly different ideas about education and help. While my mom simply wrote me off as being lazy, bored, unmotivated, or whatnot, my dad took special efforts to help me with homework. He had no special training, and at the time wasn’t yet (I think anyways) working in high school kitchens as a part of the culinary programs where he works today. He had no special insight into why I had trouble in school, except for the fact that he did too. I would only learn decades later that my dad, like child me, probably has an undiagnosed learning disability. He took more time to help me because he instinctively knew that something was going on.
Back to the Present
Was I seeing Kevin’s behaviour because I might know what he’s going through, just like how my dad did with me? Initially, I thought he was just behind or whatever, but then I started to think it’s something else. And why was I picking up on all of this? I think I know the answer.
I think Kevin is dyslexic.
While it’s easy enough to pass off this kind of behaviour as being unmotivated or unskilled, it kind of takes one to know one. Even in English, dyslexia isn’t well understood. Heck, I’ve never even received a formal diagnosis for it, though I’ve been thrice diagnosed with related conditions and just connected the dots.
Now, I’m not a doctor, a psychologist, or an education specialist. I’m not going to pretend I know everything about dyslexia or even the broad topic of learning disabilities. And maybe I’m completely reading this the wrong way. But I’ve finding this to be really interesting, and the rabbit hole seems to keep getting deeper.
Japanese people aren’t dyslexic
A quick Google search turned up some fascinating articles on Japan and dyslexia. I know from prior studies that the Japanese hive mind prevents students from being properly identified with many kinds of learning disorder since that separates them from the pack and makes them individuals. I know that, if Kevin was dyslexic, he probably didn’t know or has ever thought about it. But it gets more interesting.
See, a number of scientists have been looking into the claim that Japanese people aren’t dyslexic. I even read a claim that one could not be dyslexic in Japanese since it’s pictographic language doesn’t really permit this kind of behaviour, and that dyslexia was basically an English problem. Frankly, research has proved this to be complete nonsense. What’s really at play here is that Japanese people don’t identify these situations and know even less about them that we do in the West. I read some stats presented by some researcher that said Japan’s rate of dyslexia was several times lower than in the West, but was likely just as high due to a lack of proper education, diagnostic tools, and support systems. Like I said, if Kevin is dyslexic, it’s extremely likely that I am actually the first person to notice due to this complete lack of information and training surrounding this.
What does this mean? I’m not really sure. As compelling as what I observed was, it’s not enough to make any kind of decision or diagnosis. And given how Japan treats this kind of topic, it’s likely that having a diagnosis wouldn’t do Kevin any good. Handled the wrong way, he could be ostracized by his peers and demeaned by his parents and teacher, and removed from normal classes, instead of being empowered or understanding why this is happening. Misunderstood, this could throw up a block on English and related activities, citing that they’re just too hard to bother with, instead of better understanding how he needs to succeed. And for me, stepping in with claims that a student is disabled is a pretty bold move in a culture where I’m expected to come and go like the wind.
But I can’t help but wonder what could be done. Another site I read was about the accounts of two Japanese dyslexics who are calling out for people to better understand their struggles. They want to learn, they want to do well, but they simply never learned how. Knowing about my own learning disorders empowered me to work harder because I now understood what was happening. I learned what pitfalls there were and how to overcome them. I learned how to learn. And it was all because of those diagnoses. To better understand this could turn around the lives of kids like Kevin. To be able to notice this… it means that I can give him better and more appropriate attention. And if I can get a diagnosis or learn more, I can try and get something going in the classroom to help him succeed.
Japanese people are dyslexic
All of this highlights a greater issue that perhaps only a foreigner can see. Japanese people are just as capable and incapable as anyone else. These kids are just kids, just like kids their age in Canada. They have the same struggles and problems that kids in Canada do (even juku, after-school school, because that’s actually a thing in Canada). Recognizing that Japanese are just like me or you or the guy down the street, we can approach a problem the same way. Japanese people can be dyslexic, and understanding that can make me a better teacher, even if I’m wrong about Kevin. If a kid’s struggling, it doesn’t immediately mean that he’s a bad kid or a trouble maker. If a kid is having trouble in English, it doesn’t mean he’s unmotivated or disinterested. The first and fourth periods (fourth being right before lunch) are always the hardest to teach. Kids in the morning are tired, and fourth period is and obstacle between the students and their lunch. If the students are rowdy and troublesome, it could just mean they are hungry instead of jumping to the conclusion that they are bad kids. And if Kevin is having problems in school, it could mean that he’s having problems, instead of jumping to the conclusion that he’s just a bad or unmotivated student.
Is this where I come in?
Maybe there is a part for me to play in this after all. As an ALT, I can get students interested in English in a way their Japanese national teachers never can. I can work to trigger their motivation, but I also bring insight to by job that no other ALT has. I’m learning disabled, and if I can find a way to use that, maybe I can make a difference for all the Kevins in Japan (or at least the ones in my classroom). And at the end of the day, it’s through my eagerness and knowledge that I can perhaps best touch the lives of these students, whether or not they are disabled. I wonder if, literally by thinking about this, I’m now a better teacher.