Thursday, February 03, 2005

I Am The Foreign Teacher

I am the foreign teacher, the one you may have had back in the states, the one who speaks with an accent and sometimes articulates things in phrases that sound funny. I am the foreign teacher who is all at once interesting because of being foreign and intensely funny due to having been displaced. I didn't ever think I would have been this person, but here I am, and actually I've gotten to like it once I got over my ridiculous need to feel in control and cool and articulate. The first few months I ran up against a lot of my own inner walls, walls I didn't even know I had, or if I did know, I didn't realize just how strong they were and how much they affected my attitude towards the world. Once I got okay with being a bit of a dork, a bit of a dummy, suddenly a lot of things that used to hold me back just went away.

This is how you learn a language, after you've gotten the basics of it down, that is.

Today I taught at Numasato elementary school, the one I like because they feed me treats all day and there is a constant flow of good coffee. Actually, coffee will play a role in this anecdote in the end, but for now we'll go on to the classrooms.

I mentioned recently, I think last month, how I could feel another sort of language acquisition progression coming on, and it did happen, though more subtly than the previous ones, which were in some cases sort of torturous. I think they won't be as bad from now on because I do the basic things now without being frustrated and always uncertain of what I'm saying. So what's happened recently, mostly thanks to a lot of tutoring from Tadashi, is that I'm able to go to school and communicate even more with my students. At the elementary schools, I'm able to run the classroom without the help of the teacher. I can talk to the kids in Japanese and give them instruction and they understand. Sometimes they laugh at something I say that I'm sure sounds funny, but that's okay. I'm okay with being the foreign teacher now, right? So I laugh with them and maybe say the word I say funny a few times more to keep them going. The thing is, they know what I'm saying, even if I say it in a way they wouldn't say it, and that's the important part. It's also good because I use myself as an example of it being okay to make mistakes while trying to speak a language that isn't native to your tongue. Last week I taught at Kimiga and while during a mingling exercise where the kids talked in English among themselves using phrases I've taught them the past six months, I overheard (in Japanese of course) a fourth grade boy telling a girl that he hated something or someone. I went over to them in the corner of the room and asked what he hated. He said the name of someone and I asked him if it was someone in the room. No, he said, it was sensei he hated. I asked him if it was the woman sensei at the front of the room and he said no, and repeated the name of Yamaguchi sensei, and that's when I remembered Mr. Yamaguchi usually taught this class and the woman at the front was a substitute. I like Mr. Yamaguchi, so I asked the boy why he hated him. He said, "Okama", and laughed. Okama means gay or fag in Japanese, and since the kid thought I wouldn't know what words like that mean, I surprised him by telling him that I understood and then scolded him for using that word and talking about his sensei that way. He was surprised that I understood that word, but I'm not sure why, as our entire conversation had taken place in Japanese.

Yesterday at the Junior High, I taught with Fujita sensei in an 8th grade classroom. I'm not sure why, but the eighth graders as an entire group are generally really bad students. They are noisy and disrespectful to the teachers in class and as Fujita says, they keep getting worse at English than better. No one knows why the 8th grade has so many problems. They are good kids, but they lack discipline and could care less about learning. I'm close with many of them on a personal level, but put me in a classroom with them and they really get on my nerves. So yesterday the class was being noisy and disrespectful to Fujita as usual, talking while she talked, students turned around in their seats having conversations with their friends. It's not Dangerous Minds or anything, but it's annoying. After Fujita assigned them a task to write a description of their town in English, around 30 words, she and I made the rounds while the kids wrote. There was this one girl who was one of the talkers that is still talking during all this, and she's loudly complaining in Japanese that she doesn't understand English. When I came up to her desk she continued to complain about this to the whole room, and I was so angry with her for being a brat that I leaned down and told her, "Motto benkyo shita hou ga ii desu," It would be better if you studied more, and her eyes got wide and her mouth dropped open. The next instant she was calling Fujita sensei over and literally telling on me for saying this to her. "Sensei, he said it would be better if I studied more." I was wondering what was actually going to happen for saying something that is well intended guidance to a student, because many people here think the foreign teachers should just be a sort of trophy piece, a pet, a doll (in the case of my friend Beth) and frankly that's not going to happen with me. If I don't get the respect I deserve, I'm going to let people know about it, and if it's a problem and they don't give me the right to reprimand and correct students just like any teacher, then I'd leave. Foreign teachers are here not just to teach language, but as part of teaching the students about another culture, because Japanese is such a monoculture, and foreigners make up a very small percentage of their population, so you get asked a lot of stupid questions, as if you were literally an alien from another planet (do you use shampoo, was one question I was asked when I first got here, to which Ohama told that student, "Of course he does! What do you think? Our cultures aren't THAT different!!"). So I waited to see what Fujita would do when the girl "told" on me, and she said, "So da yo," to the girl, that's right actually, and backed me up. I was really glad for that. It's how it should be. I asked the girl if she wanted some help, and she kept saying, "Jibun de, jibun de," (I'll do it myself)waving her hand and looking totally pissed off at me. I was okay with that. Later I came around and she had me look at her description, and it was nearly perfect, but she was short five words. I helped her come up with the last sentence to finish it off and told her she'd done a good job and she smiled genuinely and thanked me for helping, so she got over her initial anger (which was really just embarrassment from someone calling her on her lack of discipline).

At lunch yesterday, Sho Kimura, my baseball boy in the 7th grade, caught me in the hallway saying, "Mr. Chris! Mr. Chris!" and told me I would have lunch with his class today instead of the one I'd been assigned to earlier. There was a change and they had forgot to tell me. I said I'd be right back to go back up to his room with him, and he literally folded his hands together behind his back and did an almost military heel click and said, "Omachi shimasu!" I'll be waiting for you. The funny thing is, he used the most polite form of I'll be waiting that is possible, putting and "O" in front of "machi", adding "shimasu" at the end. Sho is something out of a different world almost, an old version of Japan in some ways, mixed up in the new. I've never met a kid who is so damned polite. When he clicked his heels and folded his hands behind his back and lifted his chin, I felt like I was momentarily transported to what might be an inkling of the formality that Japan used to have that has been waning over the years (from what I've heard). It was both incredibly stunning in a beautiful way and incredibly alien.

Today the classes were fun. I taught six of them, which exhausted me, but I still had a good time. Because I've gotten to a certain place with the language, their world is opening up to me more and more, and this is what I suspected about language all along, and am being reminded of it. The more words you have, the more you can know and the more you can mean and the more you can interact with the world around you. I'm able to understand questions the kids ask me that I didn't understand before, and because of this I can teach them all sorts of things that I wouldn't have been able to initially. I can improvise during my lessons a little more. For example, there's this one boy in one of the sixth grades who is very advanced in his English(he gets lessons outside of school occasionally too) and so he was asking me where I lived in Japanese and where my house was etc., and so while we talked, I wrote him out these questions and answers in English as well. Since he can read the alphabet and understands phonics, he can take those phrases home and practice them on his own.

It's setsubun in Japan right now, which is the vernal equinox, and part of the tradition is that they throw soy beans throughout the rooms of their homes to cast out devils or demons. They say, "Oni wa soto!" Devils go outside! And then follow it up with an order for good luck to come inside. They throw the beans around the room as they say it. At lunch today, I ate with a sixth grade class and the teacher handed out bags of beans and at the end of lunch she said, "Hai! Iko!" "Let's go!" and the kids all tore open their bags and started throwing the beans around the room and it was a big bean fight after a while with everyone running around trying to hit each other, and then there was a pause for the "Oni wa soto!" chant and then more bean fights. What a mess, but lots of fun. I was of course the special guest and got two bags of beans to throw. I shared them with the kids at my table, which scored me huge points.

During the next English class, while the kids interviewed each other using phrases I'd taught them, at one point they chased their sensei, a round and plump little middle aged Japanese woman, around the room, chanting, "How old are you, sensei? How old are you, sensei?" She was laughing and let them chase her and hang on her. I've never seen the sort of relationships between teachers and students here back in the states. The sensei was laughing and trying to shoo them away and not tell them her age, and then one kid came up to me and asked me what taiju is in English. I didn't know the word, so another boy got a dictionary, but we couldn't find taiju in it, so he ran and we asked the sensei what taiju is, and her eyes got big and she folded her arms in an X shape and shook her head vehemently and said, No No! No taiju! I thought for sure it was a bad word, until we finally found it. The boy said, Here! And I looked in the dictionary and it said, "weight". The sensei looked terrified by their new discovery. I said, "ah, okay. This is what you say. How much do you weigh?" and then they gathered around her and started chanting again, "How much do you weigh, sensei? How much do you weigh? 100! 100! How much do you weigh?" (That's 100 kg. I weigh 83, so they were calling sensei a biiiigg lady). "Yada yo!" she shouted at them. "No way!"

During a small break period, I sat in the teacher's office and checked my email. While I was sitting there, I heard something liquid dripping nearby and looked around to find a coffee pot was overflowing and still more coffee was being made by the coffeemaker. It was spilling onto the floor. I jumped up and didn't know what to do for some reason, and there was only a few teachers in the office, talking amongst themselves, who hadn't noticed the dilemma, and so I said, "Sumimasen, kohii o, um, um, kohii o um, um, gatsun!!" This got their attention even if I sounded silly. I didn't know how to tell them what was happening with the coffee maker, so I basically said, Excuse me but the coffee went bam!" Gatsun is a sound in Japanese for well, crashing into something. Like we say bam or boom, etc. They rushed over and turned it off and started cleaning up. I apologized and pointed to the overflow of coffee dripping off the table and said, "Kono kotoba wa shiranai," I don't know this word. I used my hands to make the gesture of the coffee spilling off the table. The lady cleaning it up said, "Koboreru, koboreru," and now I know how to say something is spilling.

I'm not sure if you can remember it, but I can remember as far back as when I first started talking, and asking my parents and adults all the time, "What's this? What's that?" and then when I learned how to read I started asking, "What's that word mean? Is this how you say it?" I can remember driving with my mom through a town called Cortland. At the time Cortland was a village, and I saw this on the sign at their border welcoming people and asked my mom, "What's a village?" She then explained how there are different sized communities and how we define them by size and population and their other various qualities and then explained what cities, towns, villages, and townships all were. And I can remember after that asking as we passed through other places, "Where are we now?" "Warren," my mom would say, or "Mecca" or wherever, and I'd ask, "Is it a city, town, village or township?" And in this way a piece of the world was being mapped for me.

It's that same process now, at the age of 29, happening all over again. Some people might think this would be a terrible thing to have to go through. But honestly, truly, returning to the beginning of language has returned me to a place that I can only describe as magical. I feel more in tune with the world than I have since I was a child, before too many associations accumulated around the things and words I have in English. The world feels open again, and limitless. If I have to give up everything I know and be okay with not feeling in control, I think it's a fair price to pay for what I'm getting in return.


Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Wow, what a great account, Chris. Thanks for writing this.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, a superb post, man. i love the story about the girl who was offended that you would reprimand her for being a careless student. seems a good opportunity to learn, "gonna smack you, ya little snot," in japanese. ;)


1:11 PM  
Blogger elad said...

ditto my esteemed fellow commenters. a wonderful post, chris.

6:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, what a great post! Indeed you are learning all over again as an adult as you did as a child. Your handling of that young Japanese girl was perfect. Respect and hard work bring many positive results. I am so proud of you. I believe you are a wonderful teacher, even if you have told me many times teaching is not your first love, your ability to work with your students is showing much success and respect.Keep up your hard work and determination. Much love, Mom :)Hugs

7:28 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I'm glad you liked it, and yes, I know, I can't believe that I'll be thirty in another six months. Okay, five and a half, but I'm clinging to the six damn it!

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can you stand being so old!!

1:16 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...


3:52 AM  
Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Dude, you're just barely older than me, just by a couple months. I turn 30 in October.

Next time I see you, I'll buy you some Ensure and we can gum some creamed corn together. :)

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're both so old you'll never remember.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Aw, thank you Heather, you're very sweet.

1:54 AM  
Blogger Greg van Eekhout said...

Chris, I've been quietly enjoying your posts for some time. Thanks for the transportation.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Oh hello there, Greg! Glad to see you pop in here. And that you enjoy the posts, more glad. I quietly read yours as well (accept during the Great Post Flurry of the 2004 Election, when I wasn't as quiet as usual). Congratulations on the good year you've been having with stories.

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, chris, reading this makes me miss you so much. i love you, old man! :) -brooke-

5:42 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Hey Brookey! Aw, I miss you too, sweetie. You must come over and at least visit at some point. You would absolutely love it.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Nurí said...

This is a terrific short story! I almost felt like I was there.
I originally found your post via a Google search about the definition of a few choice Japanese words and decided to read the entire posting.
What a small world that we're from the same city: Youngstown!
I lived in Liberty, however. What a coincidence!
While this is an older posting, I thought I'd comment today anyway to add my voice to everyone else's who lauded you on your teaching and writing skills. Your mother has a right to be so proud.
Having lived in Spain in a mostly non-English speaking city, I enjoyed expanding my cultural and philological knowledge of Spain and could easily identify a lot of the themes you were exploring in your post.
Thanks for being awesome and taking the time to share your journal with others!
Nurí Pazol
Ps. Hopefully your 30th birthday was a blast and you're enjoying it! I turn 30 in 5 years and I'm not sure what to make of it, myself.

12:14 PM  

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