Scooter vs Japan

What I could never get away with in Canada | November 18, 2015

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.

Big picture

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.

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Posted in Living, Teaching

1 Comment »

  1. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Japan: This Shit’s Weird | Scooter vs Japan — December 16, 2015 @ 6:19 am


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About author

Scooter is an ESL teacher and Japanese anthropologist. He hopes to document his thoughts of living in Japan, continued cultural studies, and to provide advice for others looking to hop the pond.

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