Jun 27, 2008

Through the Verdant

I've often mentioned Tokyo in my posts. I do love Tokyo, but really, it's where I spend my weekends. My work week is spent out in Narita, a bit over an hour away from downtown Tokyo. The area around my apartment looks less like a neon labyrinth from the future, and more like this:

I've come to really liking the rice fields and the rural areas. In the mornings before work, I've taken to biking out among the fields, which are amazingly green right now.

The train looks sort of otherworldly, technology speeding through the green.

It goes on an on, bikalbe paths sometimes leading into another field, and sometimes terminating nowhere.

The rice itself. Insects and tiny fish swim in the water around the green shoots, and the whole sprawling mass of it seems immensely alive.

A darkened bamboo grove. Roshomon took place in a grove like this. I can see why.

I feel like I've got the best of both worlds. I've got this side of Japan at my fingertips during the week, and I can dive into the biggest city in the world on the weekends. Life is good.

Jun 13, 2008

The Other Side of the Classroom

For the past month I've been attending Japanese lessons at a community center here in Narita. They're free, open to all foreigners living here, and have become one of the highlights of my week. When I first got there, I was a bit surprised to find that I was the only Westerner in the class- I sort of assumed that there would be some other English teachers, or people involved in international trade who work either at or near the airport. No such thing. The class is mostly Chinese, Fillipinos and Koreans, with a few other students from South America. As an American, I'm a curiosity.

Being there has been immensely good for my teaching. When I was taking private lessons in Okayama, helped me immensely to see things from the student's perspective, to suddenly see the format of an EFL lesson turned back at me. But, I was all alone there, with a teacher who could explain the finer points of grammar in perfect English. Now, I'm in a large group lesson entirely in Japanese and I'm quite impressed with how the main teacher organizes the class and is able to communicate to a variety of students in a second language. I see her using a lot of methods that I've learned- she uses pictures, speaks at a reasonable pace, uses a variety of examples, and puts grammar and even uses stupid jokes as a way of keeping things interesting. Fun times. She's great- every time I leave one of her classes I feel very, very good about learning Japanese, and I want to crack open one of my books and study more.

However, that's only the main teacher. There are a few others there, and they suck horribly. Really, really horribly.

The first time I was there, one of the backup teachers, this middle-aged woman, decided to hover over me and perpetually ask if I understood what was going on. For the most part, I was getting things fine, but I told her honestly a few times that I didn't quite understand something. That was a bad idea.

While the main lesson was going on, she leaned over my shoulder and started talking to me at a rapid-fire pace. I can only assume she was giving me some impromptu lecture about the finer points of Japanese grammar, and I didn't understand a word of it. I really, really wanted her to shut up so I could just listen to the lesson and figure out stuff on my own from context. I eventually told her that I understood just to make her go away, and I know sort of cringe when she starts talking in class. I doubt any of the other students understand her, either.

Two weeks ago, though, the main teacher, the good one, was gone. The class was wholly in the hands of the woman who I couldn't understand at all, and this old guy who, rather annoyingly, spoke a bit of English. I say annoyingly, because he translated just about everything he wrote on the board into English, and looked directly at me whenever he said anything. I was a bit uncomfortable with this- there was a whole room of Asian gaijin, and he was giving special attention to the lone white guy. I might have been imagining it, but I found it sort of squirmy in a racially weird way.

So, without the main teacher, class sucked. It was disorganized, the two backup instructors got almost nothing from blank looks from the class. They didn't contextualize anything- no pictures, not much in the way of hand gestures, no props, and not even very many simple explanations. Instead, it was very lecture-like and when they did ask for class participation all they got was uncomfortable and uncomprehending nonreaction. So, we broke into a bunch of side conversations.

I didn't pay any real attention to the backup teachers, and instead had an absolutely hilarious conversation with these two Chinese girls. I told them about traveling to China, and one of them happened to be from Shanghai, which was cool. They asked me about America, aboutbeing a teacher, and explained to me how they had to go back and forth from China to Japan fairly often for visa reasons (I don't think it's all that easy for Chinese to travel abroad) and all was going swimmingly until I asked one of them what she did for work.

She said that she worked at a minsetsu no tokoro.

I had no idea what the hell that was. Some kind of place, as that's what tokoro means, but I didn't know what minsetsu meant. I asked her and she said that "minsetsu is talking." Rather unfeministly of me, I assumed that she worked at a hostess bar, one of those places where business men pay stupid amounts of money to have hot chicks pour their drinks and chat with them. She was definitely cute enough to do something like that, and I began a line of questioning asking whether or not she was a hostess, whereupon he and her friend laughed, tried to correct me, and then called over this Fillipino woman, who kinda/sorta speaks English, to translate.

"How do you say minsetsu in English," they asked her. The Fillipino woman thought for a few moments and said to me.


What the fuck did you just say? "Doris?" I asked.

"Hai. Doris."


"Hai. Doris." Either she'd studied from one of the worst EFL dictionaries ever, or she was messing with me. I really hope she was just messing with me. I told her that "Doris" was a woman's name and didn't make any sense. She looked at me incredulously, and knit her brow.

Eventually I figured out that minsetsu is a word for "interview" and that the Chinese woman called her work an "interview place" because she didn't know the word for "employment agency." As it turns out, she's not a hostess at all, but works at a place where Chinese people can look for jobs in Japan.

All of this confusion and chatting was far better than the lesson that the backup teachers were painfully rattling out, and ended up having a great time. It put eikaiwa (Japan's privately owned English conversation schools) into perspective for me, and I could understand why even if the teachers are utterly incompetent and the lesson makes no sense, people would still come for the simple pleasure of speaking a foreign language. In a foreign language, almost anything seems awesome. I recently did a rather negative sounding post about how my students always talk about the weather in English.

But, the truth is that, at least at the low levels, every bit of communication in an acquired tongue seems like you've unlocked something, like you've decrypted a secret code or learned a new talent. In way, you have. For example, we did it. Me and the Chinese woman successfully communicated in a foreign language, successfully cracked the code and conveyed the information "employment agency." We climbed up and over our own misunderstandings, and reached clarity and understanding.

At the end of the two hours, I leave Japanese lessons with a sort of high, a satisfaction of efficacy and ability. Even though there is still so much that I don't understand, I feel that the Japanese language is something doable and understandable, something that yeild to effort and reason.

When my students leave my own classes, I hope to put a similar feeling into their minds about English.

Jun 10, 2008

New Wheels

For the past eight months, I've basically been living without a basic life necessity- a bike. I have had one, but it was an old, rusty thing that was a bit too small for me. Okay, way too small for me- it was designed for someone perhaps ten inches shorter than me and was a pain to ride.

This Sunday, though, I finally got a new bike. Not only that, but I bought a road bike for the first time in my life. I've owned mountain bikes and hybrids, but up until now I've always been sort of resistant to getting a road bike. It turns out, though, that they're awesome. It's responsive, you can feel yourself connected with the machine and the road, and much, much lighter than a mountain bike.

Kori rides quite a bit, and I can't keep up with her quite yet, but we went around this weekend in the suburbs, and later I did some night riding around the industrial area near Tokyo Bay. I'm hoping to eventually be able to ride from Narita to Funabashi (where Kori lives) and also from Narita to the Chiba coast.

I'm psyched.

Jun 5, 2008

Beyond Smalltalk

This is an addendum to the last post.

Joseph had a good point in the comments
- awkward silences do suck. I know that not all conversation can be high-quality conversation. Most of everything isn't high-quality. I guess my issue is having to intentionally and deliberately teach something that I don't care for. That's what makes me superconscious of it. I've also become aware that as an EFL teacher, I've acquired a certain amount of ease and comfort with smalltalk, and I'm honestly good at it. I feel very socially acute because of this, but it's without a certain feeling of shallowness as well.

I do have very real conversations with my students. Just yesterday I had a really excellent one about the comparable prevalence of non-traditional families in the U.S. and Japan. Another student also caught me off guard by asking me about the religious agenda of the Narnia books. That kind of came out of nowhere, but it was because she'd just seen Prince Caspian. Also, she'd read a translation of the series as a kid, and her mother expressed some unease about it, hearing that it was designed to teach Christianity to children. She asked me about all this, and I ended up talking about C.S. Lewis, and why the Screwtape Letters was one of the most infuriating books I ever read, to the point where I couldn't finish it.

As a teacher, I live for that kind of stuff. Getting them to honestly express themselves about really interesting matters is extremely rewarding, and I can definitely ask the right questions and run a stimulating conversation. I like to think that's why I'm a teacher- I'd rather that they learn English to talk about things like social issues and literature and such, rather than just about the weather.

That's probably a big part of my distaste for smalltalk. I might overestimate my students, but I think that if you have talent enough to be conversant in a foreign language, there's got to be something to you. There has to be something interesting, real and awesome about you, something more than the shallowness that smalltalk evokes. There have to be opinions and ideas about bigger issues than the weather in those English-learning minds, right?

I know there are, and I know also that quality discourse doesn't surface all the time. There are plenty of times where I just blank out and can't think of anything to say. That's not a bad thing, it happens to everyone, and I realize that it could very well happen more often in a foreign language.

Still, I know I'm going to hear about the weather today (it's sunny today, by the way) when I go to work later. It's part of my job to talk about it, and really. Still, I hope that the interactions that I have with my students rise above such things, and that we forget the obvious and use their newly acquired language for something honestly interesting.

Jun 4, 2008

The First Nicety

"How are you?"

"It's raining."


"How are you doing today?"

"There is rain."


"What's new."

"Today, it's raining."

That is how several conversations that I have with students begin. They walk into school, and if I'm there I'll say hello to them in the lobby. I use the standard English openers ("How are you?" etc.) and they usually reply by telling me about the weather. Not all students, mind you. There are several who dutifully say "I'm fine," and a rare, advanced, few who give me a real answer. But most of them, especially those in lower level classes, respond to my initial question with an assessment of the perfectly visible weather.

Of course it's raining. It's been raining for a while now. Late spring and early summer is Japan's rainy season, the season of typhoons and downpours. The stuff collects on the windows of my classroom, and in the evening lull sticks to the glass like circular ice crystals against the bright lights. Or it runs down the window in rivulets, little rivers with a vein of neon in them. It's pervasive and obvious, and when I begin talking with students, they first mention the pervasive and obvious.

Some, though, especially kids, robotically say "I'm fine, thank you, and you?" "I'm fine, thank you. How are you?" But it comes out all wrong. It comes out as a single memorized phrase, a single chunk of information. Which is fine, I guess, because that's how they learned it. But both the robotic intonation of "I'm fine thank you, and you?" and the incessant talk about the weather reveals a lot about the rituals of starting a conversation.

When my kids say "I'm fine thank you, and you?" and when my students answer "How are you?" with "It's raining," both of them are taking part in a ritual, a formality, a bit of theater, a bullshit mantra. In English, we say "I'm fine," and in Japanese one obviously comments on the weather. In either case, the polite, expected way to start a conversation is to not exchange any real information at all. It's speech without discourse, talking without communication. It's the first nicety- saying nothing real.

Of course you're fine (whatever that means). Of course it's raining. The teller has revealed nothing, the asker has learned nothing- the only thing we've done is open our mouths in a simulacrum of real discussion. I tend to dislike smalltalk because of this. Of course, since I teach lots of people who can't express complex ideas in English because they simply lack the linguistic resources, I have to engage in and teach smalltalk as part of my job. I'm good at it, but I still don't find it as nourishing as real speech. I'd rather hear someone say "I'm hungry" than "I'm fine" any day.

It's the teaching part that's odd. To be effective communicators, to fit in to an English-speaking environment, I have to teach them new rituals, new formality, new theater, new bullshit mantras. And it can't be robotic or perfunctory, like my kids do it. If the theater looks like theater, if the ritual is revealed as a ritual, it loses its effectiveness. "I'm fine" and other smalltalk has to pretend, a little, to be something real. The intonation of it has to sound somewhat genuine, even if it's not. And it's almost always not, really. People tend to be happy, tired, depressed, annoyed, or bored throughout the day. What the hell is "fine," anyway? I guess it's some neutral, inoffensive state, an emotional Switzerland.

At least idle comments about the obvious weather don't do too much to mask the state of the speakers being. Yes, hearing "it's raining" is annoying. God, it's insufferable sometime. But at least it doesn't pretend that everyone is at some equilibrium of fine-ness. Still, I have to teach them, have to show them how to put a little bit of English language bullshit into their speech and tell everyone that they're fine.

I'm fine.

You're fine.

We're all fine here.

Also, it's raining.