Aug 30, 2008

Sales: Sort of Like S&M

A friend of mine recently described my blog posts as "verbose." I can't really disagree with that... This is another long one.

Last night, one of my favorite students paid the equivalent of over two thousand dollars to take more lessons. I'm happy about this.

When I was a kid, I'd mow lawns for money. My dad didn't give me an allowance once I was in middle school. Instead, I had to do yard work for people in the neighborhood, and they'd pay me for it. There was an older woman whose lawn I mowed every weekend, and whose leaves I raked in the fall. I took care of her dog when she was away, and helped her build a shed. For any given task, she'd give me ten dollars.

Being older, she occasionally forget to pay me. She'd just say thank you and absentmindedly start doing something else. It wasn't that she was trying to cheat me, she just really was old and forgetful. When she did this, I hated reminding her to pay me. Hated it. I'd shift awkwardly on her front porch like I was about to ask her something horrible, like I had some sort of confession to make, or was somehow in the wrong. I'd usually utter something like "So, ten dollars, right?" She would look embarrassed and come back with a combination of bills that added up to ten. I was happy to have the money, but I also felt oddly and strongly guilty after I had to remind her to pay me. I wished that the money would just show up, that I wouldn't have to vocalize my wants, that I didn't have to force this old woman to open her purse.

This weird and specific guilt took a while to dissipate, and it returned in an odd way when I began my current job. My job not only involves teaching, but also a bit of sales.

To be perfectly clear- I'm not a volunteer. I'm not working for the Peace Corps or CARE or some admirable international entity. My job is not at a public school or a community center. Students pay to be there, and we want them to come back for another round of lessons when their contract is finished. I'm working for a huge company (granted, one that sells something fairly worthwhile), and they want to make a profit.

When I started, I thought this was horrible. Sickening, even.

Why, I thought, weren't we a nonprofit? Why weren't we pure? Why were were soiling education with filthy, filthy commerce? Why did we have fixed tuition rates, and not sliding scale? Why on earth would we do something as vulgar as set profit goals to ourselves? The idea of asking a student whether or not they wanted to buy another contract for lessons, asking them whether or not they wanted to pay to take more classes with me, was something that filled me with guilt and revulsion. Selling, I thought, was something inherently sleazy, regardless of the merit of the product.

In other words, I thought that being a successful salesman meant you had to be something like this:

That was my vague image, and it affected the initial feeling of asking, and such a lack of confidence did not allow me much success in either my beginning teaching or sales experience. To learn a language, (or to make a large purchase) people must feel at ease, they must feel confident. How on earth can one instill confidence and ease when they, themselves, lack confidence and ease?

I'm now fairly good at my job, and my prevailing feeling at work is one of satisfaction. When students say "yes," when people agree to pay large sums of money to learn English from me, the sensation is one of confidence and pleasure. There is more than a little in the way of testosterone-fueled gratificating here, more than a little feeling of conquest and dominance. I have successfully made a person part with large sums of money. I quite enjoy persuading people, seeing people do what I want, affecting people's decisions and actions, and a successful contract renewal or new student sign-up feeds directly into that.

It was this feeling of dominant and controlling satisfaction, I think, that so frightened me and made me riddled with guilt about initially asking for money, or asking for what I wanted. From the beginning, I definitely wanted my students to approve of me by signing up for classes. I wanted them to pay for me. I wanted them to open their wallets and give me what they wanted. I wanted success and impressive numbers, and was intimidated by the supposed dauntingness of it. I wondered how on earthy my coworkers did it, how on earth they successfully took what they wanted from students, from customers. I very badly wanted to be successful at selling myself, and for most of my first year I was more or less a failure because in a certain way I've always been hideously afraid of what I wanted. I was afraid that my desire to control and influence people would mean, if satisfied, that I was some kind of bad person, that fulfillment of my goals would be coterminus with a kind of moral failure, that my fulfillment would necessarily come at others' expense.

Anyway, I realized three things that allowed me to revise my opinions on this, and I'm now much more successful.

First- Customers (in this case, my students) benefit from a successful sales transaction. People spend money on things because they believe they will derive a certain amount of utility from those things. A good salesman believes in the utility of his product, and connects people with that utility. Nonintuitive as it may sound, sales is a service. The common line in popular culture is that the greatest salesman in the world is one who could "sell ice to eskimos," that is, rip people off. I disagree with this. Such a hypothetical ice-peddler would not be providing his customers with any kind of utility. A good salesman is someone who connects people with the utility they need.

Second- I'm not a rip-off. I'm a good teacher, and actually worth paying for. Students do not waste their money or their time in my classes. They benefit from their purchase because I'm good enough to deliver that benefit. I deserve a salary, and I shouldn't feel at all guilty when students pay the tuition that make that salary possible.

Third- People have different definitions of utility. I know this is all very Econ 101, but it's true. While I think it's weird to pay so much for a native teacher, and wouldn't do so in the States, the fact of the matter is that the scarcity of such an instructor is very different here. In any given major American city you can probably find a native speaker of a major language. Not so in Japan. When I lived in Okayama, I was one of the very few people there who was able to, say, pick up something by Milton and get something out of it. In, say, St. Louis or Baltimore, though, you could probably find dozens of people who could devour Basho in the original old Japanese. The utility and scarcity of foreigners here is dramatically different than in the U.S., and thus, what people are willing to pay and what they feel they get is very different.

There are lots of situations where different parties can be mutually satisfied by fulfillment of their different definitions of utility. Take, for instance, S&M (you were wondering when I'd finally get to the S&M bit, weren't you?)

In a good S&M situation, everyone gets what they want. The doms, subs, switches, voyeurs, whoever. It's not like the doms actually rape anybody, or the subs actually get abused. Everyone agrees on what role their playing, and gets something out of it. Granted, the doms get something different than the subs and vice-versa, but everyone walks away satisfied and will hopefully come back for more later.

Likewise, in a good sales situation, everyone gets what they want. The sales staff, customers, managers, whoever. It's not like the salespeople actually rip off anybody, or the customers actually get taken. Everyone agrees on what role their playing, and gets something out of it. Granted, the sales staff get something different than the customers and vice-versa, but everyone walks away satisfied and will hopefully come back for more later.

My school met all of its monetary goals last month (this is not something that happens often) and is doing very well again this month (I can't take all the credit for this, by the way- my coworkers are also good at what they do). There's still a mushy, pinko, part of me that's scared of all that cash, but mostly I'm just pleased about it. I'll probably never work in sales on a permanent basis, but I no longer think of it as devil's work.

Aug 29, 2008

Not Again...

Coming out of my apartment this morning I heard-


Did someone just say "umbrella?" I sort of wondered if I was hearing things, whether or not someone said "casa" and I had mentally translated it. After a few moments, though, it was apparent that two women were coming out of an apartment below me, speaking English. I walked down and saw that one of them was Western.

"Hi!" I said, "I thought I was the only foreigner here."

I had a pleasant conversation with the woman, and she had some questions about getting a job in Japan. I happily obliged her with some information and thought to myself "Maybe these people are awesome and we can be friends!" I'm occasionally starved for non-professional contact out here during the week...

Then her Japanese friend said to me, "We're spreading the message of the Bible. Are you Christian?"

Aw, shit. "Um... no."

"We're Jehova's Witnesses. Here, let me give you a pamphlet." She opened up a small book of pamphlets that looked to be printed in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and sundry other languages. She found an English one that bore the title "Can This World Survive?" I thanked them as politely as I could and went off to work.

This is the fourth time that I've been approached by Jehova's Witnesses in Narita. The fourth. Back in Oregon I had a grand total of zero conversations with anyone who tried to chat me up about the end of the world. (To be fair, though, Eugene had other, different types of crazies.) But here, across the Pacific, in the middle of a country where English isn't spoken and religion not generally ascribed to, Jehova's Witnesses are finding me at a pretty steady rate. Even now two of them are on the floor below me, with their multilingual pamphets.

What a small world we live in. Sure hope it survives.

Aug 23, 2008

I'm Exceedingly Mature. Really.

I teach an advanced kids class, and it's one of the highlights of my week. The kids are all very high level, having lived abroad for a bit, and they're bright little bundles of joy. I'm not being ironic. They really do kick ass.

Yesterday, I was doing a class with them about describing past events, and everyone had to tell a funny story about something that happened to them in the past. The first kid mentioned that when he was three, he burned himself when attempting to grab a candle flame because he thought the fire was neat looking. We had a good laugh at that.

The next kid's story was a little different. "When I was three years old," she said grinning, "I touched poo."

"What?" I thought I misheard her.

"Poo. I put my finger in poo. When I was three."

"What is poo?" asked both of her classmates, almost at the same time.

"Poo is unchi." Immediately the two other classmates lost control of themselves laughing, doubling over with convulsions of hilarity. Even I started laughing. They were losing it, so I was losing it. The two students eagerly wrote down their new vocabulary word, with accompanying sketches of it. Poo is unchi! Really, how is that not funny?

The student who initially uttered the scatological syllable spread her arms of her head, and pixielike proclaimed "POO!" in a voice loud enough to carry outside the classroom. The absurdity of excrement dominated the air and it took a few moments for the students (and myself) to calm down.

I then had a choice- should I curtail this conversation, put an end to all this poo-talk? Or should I use this, milk it for all it's worth, really get the kids going? EFL experts recommend sticking to topics that students find interesting, and there is a part of me that likes being a showman, so when it was my turn to tell a story about my past I said:

"When I was a child, I liked to eat..." I paused for dramatic effect, "ice cream. Delicious, chocolate ice cream. Creamy, brown, delicious ice cream..."

"Chocolate ice cream looks like poo!" shouted a student. Hilarity ensued.

The rest of the class went great, and afterwards I was wondering what the lesson said about me as a teacher. Was I a great teacher for creating rapport and getting students interested in the lesson? Or, should I have nipped the poo thing in the bud, and not allowed shit talk to pervade my classroom. I'm sort of worried about whether or not the kids will expect shit-based humor next week as well. Gotta keep expectations in check.

Hehe... Poo!

Aug 22, 2008

Words on Loan

My ketai died a bit over a week ago, and I had to get a new one.

Certainly, referring to it as a "cell phone" would be the proper, English way to say it, but since I've been living in Japan the word "ketai" has primacy in my mind. "Cell phone" is a sort of vague, secondary syllable. Granted, I most often refer to it simply as a "phone." But the two word term "cell phone" still seems strange. This may very well be because I didn't own such an object before I came to Japan. Since I've owned one, it has always been a "phone" or "ketai." "Cell phones" remain something else, conceptually, for me.

Life here has affected my language. That I use several Japanese terms in casual, otherwise English, conversation is simply the most obvious. I often buy onigiri (rice balls) or tea at a konbini (convenience store), a few weeks ago I rode on the Shinkansen (bullet train), I drink nama biru (beer on tap) and order nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) when out with friends, fret over the logistics at work of students with kyufukin (government sponsered) contracts, read emails from the kaicho's (the CEO's) office, and I've got nothing but sympathy for my kids who have to attend not only eikaiwa (english conversation schools), but also juku (cram schools).

And so on.

For the most part, this list only includes nouns, and that seems logical. When introduced to another culture, one can find a lot more in the way of objects and phenomena, but probably very little in the way of new verbs or adjectives. (Though there are few of those. Almost every expat living here will know kawaii, cute, and baka, stupid.) When presented with a new concept or phenomena, it's perfectly natural to use the native term for it, rather than contriving a new word in your native language.

Take for example the word "onigiri." Onigiri are rice balls often wrapped in seaweed and filled with tasty things such as fish and vegetables. I've eaten these things at a pretty steady rate since I've gotten here, and they seem to be a universally favored snack thing. Last weekend, out on my bike with Kori, had one in my backpack and mentioned that I was hungry and wanted to stop to "drink some water and eat my rice ball." I used the English term.

As soon as I said it I thought to myself "Why the hell did I call it a 'rice ball?'" It was as if I used some weird, foreign term for it, like instead of saying "cheese" I refered to the stuff as "fromage." I think I felt this way because these things have always been simply "onigiri" to me. When I first asked "What's this?" when I first ate one my companion said "It's an onigiri." They're labeled as such in stores, Japanese people obviously use the Japanese term, and they're not really shaped like balls anyway, given that they're often triangular.

It's remarkable to see how a well-established linguistic phenomenon, that of loan words, has so quickly played out in my own vocabulary and social environment. Thinking about it also offers a bit of perspective on the Japanese language's sizable collection of English loan words. Katakana words can occasionally be maddening (i.e., "mansion" means "apartment building" rather than "big, expensive house.") and there is, every so often the urge to say "Stop! You're doing it wrong! It's not a 'handle,' it's a 'steering wheel!' Get it right!" Such urges are not only impossible to satisfy, but also display a misunderstanding of how people adopt new words and concepts. I'm not going to go so far as to advocate "Engrish" as an English dialect, but I given my own borrowing and probable mispronunciation and misuse of Japanese terms, I can summon up a bit of tolerance for it.

As a practical matter for me, it is sometimes difficult to maintain "pure" English when I'm teaching in the classroom. A big part of my job is that I'm a native speaker, I'm not Japanese, and students are hoping that the English they're learning is authentic. I know that I've used several of the abovementioned terms at work, and when I do catch myself using such words, I worry about the level of authenticity that I'm providing my students. Granted, I like to think of myself as fairly good at my job, but I do have to sometimes conciously keep my vocabulary "natural."

Oh, the joys of language...

Aug 13, 2008

More Book Stuff! This Time, Shutting Out the Sun by Mark Zielenziger

I'll call him Henry. Henry was a student of mine back in Okayama, a bright guy who lacked all manner of social skills. I would ask him something simple, something like "How are you?" and he would look around the room, quickly jerk his head from side to side as if searching for others and say "Me?"

"Yes. How are you."

"The Hanshin Tigers won." He was obsessed with the Hanshin Tigers, Osaka's baseball team. He would watch their games on television and, when they weren't televised, listen to their games on his radio. He also listened too NHK's regular English language programs, and bought the network's English learning publication with religious regularity. Often, he would bring it in to the school and show it to me. The only other thing that I knew he did was that listned to a band called B'z and bought everything they released. Henry was thrity one when I taught him, had no job, and lived with his parents, who paid for his television, radio, NHK magazines, CDs, and English lessons. I suspected then, and still do, that his fifty minute English lesson was the single longest conversation he had each week, given his extreme social strangeness. "I hate Henry," my Japanese coworker often said, "no job, not in school, nothing. He's a parasite."

Henry, though, at least got out of his house. Despite the fact that he had no job or friends and, at thrity one, still lived with his parents, at least he got out of his house and went to bookstores, CD shops, and English lessons. Across Japan, there are thousands of men (and they are mostly men) who don't even do that. They're known as hikikomori, shut-ins who simply stay hidden in their rooms, living with their parents, talking to no one. Compared to the hikikomori, Henry was downright sociable. These recluses are a departure point for Shutting Out the Sun, a book by American journalist Mark Zilenziger.

Shutting Out the Sun
was something of a bait-and-switch, in that I picked it up thinking that it would be about a specific phenomenon within Japanese society, the tragic presence of the hikikomori. However, that was only the first few chapters. The time that Zielenziger does spend on the hikikomori, their parents' struggles, conversations with community workers and therapists who have worked with them, and a few interviews with recovering shut-ins themselves, is great. It's the best part of the book, and I do recommend Shutting Out the Sun for its illustrations of troubled youth within Japan.

But then the book's quality turns south and never recovers. After doing some interesting and probing work into the phenomenon of the hikikomori and doing a chapter on Japanese women who don't wish to marry or have children (a book topic all of its own) Zielenziger goes into a full-on anti-Japan rant. The book ceases to be about the plights of troubled youth (something I wanted to read about) and turns into an elongaged rant by a whiny gaijin who doesn't like the country he lives in (I didn't want to read that- I get enough of that at the bars). Ostensibly, he's trying to explain how Japan produced the hikikomori

Now, there's plenty of stuff about Japan that I don't like, and that does indeed need to change. The overworking, the inflexibility, the LDP, the consumerism, etc. This stuff is, indeed, uncool, and all worthy of coverage. However, Zielenziger hits the same note over and over again, bashing Japan for being a "collectivist" society that fosters codependence and discourages individual ingenuity. I don't think this is completely incorrect, but I do think that such an argument lacks nuance, and that Japan is a bit more complex than just that.

Something that I found especially aggravating was Zielenziger's glowing portrait of Korea. Over the past fifteen years South Korea has indeed done extraordinarily well and is worthy of all sorts of praise. It is not worthy, however, of the glowing and one dimensional lionization that Zielenziger heaps upon it, particularly with regards to Korean Christianity.

Rather oddly (especially since he professes himself to be a secular Jew) Zielenziger points at Japan's lack of a Judeo-Christian worldview as a source of its social ills. Conversely, he points to the presense of Christianity in Korea as a factor contributing to South Korea's economic success. Zielenziger's biggest target is always "collectivism" as a general idea, and holds up Christianity as something that promotes individual rights and responsibilities. As someone who was raised Catholic and since abandoned it, I believe that I can rightly say that Christianity can just as well degrade and impede individual rights. If anything, a friend of mine who used to work in Korea mentioned that the traditional, conservative Confucian values often work in concert with, rather than in opposition to, Christianity.

Zielenziger is correct when he characterizes Japan as being a largely secular country, however. But, he stretches too far. He criticizes Japanese for having no firm relgious beliefs, seeing it as a tragic cause of so many of the country's symptoms.

I was a bit personally put out by this.

Secularism, I think, is something that countries, communities, and civilizations in general should strive for. I'm not going to get up on a soapbox and give some sort of Christopher Hitchens style anti-theistic rant, but I do think that for the most part, we are better without religion. It would be a terrible tragedy if we ever lost philosophy, mind you, but religion really ought to be phased out. I would disagree with Zielenziger in that I don't think that Japan's problem is lack of relgion, but a sort of prevailing philosophical and political apathy.

But I digress.

Zielenziger also devotes a bit of time to Japan's relationship with the U.S., likening Japan, as a nation, to a sort of world-affairs version of a hikikomori, and painting the U.S. as the overly indulgent and enabling mother who lets her child keep up his isolation. I can see how one would draw this conclusion, but I think he takes the metaphor a little too far. I do agree with him on a major point though- during MacArthur's occupation, the U.S. did it's damndest to crush emerging, progressive Japanese political parties for fear that they had communist sympathies. America successfully propped up the old guard and destroyed the emerging competition, thus screwing over Japan's chance at an emerging liberal tradition. I agree that that has harmed the social and political life of Japan.

But, when Zielenziger points out things like this it seems that he's not so much trying to explain how Japanese society produced hikikomori, as the other way around. It looks like his primary ideological project is illustrating the ills of Japanese society, and then using hikikomori as an ugly example of how bad things are. This isn't a bad approach, necessarily, but the structure of the book makes the reader think that it will be the other way around.

The biggest problem with Zielenziger's book (other than his grating opinions about Christianity) is not so much its inaccuracy, but its hopelessness. Zielenziger paints a picture of a static and staid Japan that is unable and unwilling to change. He imagines the country sliding only further into it withdrawl and irrelevance, and offers almost no real hope for the future, presenting change and progress as something stifled by the choking conservatism of Japanese society.

I would describe this view as politically immature. I can imagine Zielenziger as one of those pontificators who takes a sort of perverse joy in prophesizing doom, who gestures with eagerness at the flawless canvas of doom. I remember political science classes from university, and I've seen the type. I've even been the type. The type that can only discuss problems as if they are all-consuming and insurmountable, relishing the accompanying hopelessness and angst.

Japan, I think, can change. Just yesterday two of my students said they think that Japan will have should have a female prime minister someday. I have another student, a young businessman who has described himself as a "feminist," and still another who (without any prompting from me) said that Japan really ought to officially apologize to Japan and Korea for wartime atrocities. I realize that the people who take English lessons may not be representatives of society as a whole, and are probably more progressive than a lot of people, but they certainly don't fit in the picture of gloomy, doomed conservatism that Zielenziger paints.

Somthing will change. It has to.

Aug 7, 2008

Favorites and the Opposite Thereof

They are not all equally loved, supported, or even admired.

I'm a teacher, and as a teacher, I have favorite students. I had a hard time admitting this to myself for some time. For a while, I held onto the untenable ideal that a teacher should support and nurture students equally, like a parent or Jesus or something. You know- all that Good Shepherd type bullshit. But, this model and ideal, admirable as it appears, does not accurately describe reality.

There are some students who just get it, and I find them absolute joys to teach. I don't mean that they necessarily have high levels of English. What I mean is that they learn well. They use the English they have to communicate effectively, eagerly make new language items their own, and consciously find connections and links in the language. These are the students who can guess words from context, who use expressive (if inaccurate) language to communicate their ideas, and who are capable of quickly making the language part of themselves. I have several students like this, and I really appreciate them.

There are others, though.

I like to think of myself as a pretty effective teacher and communicator, and I think that I've cracked open a few hard nuts in my time. However, there are a few (I want to emphasize few) students whom I've had that I grudgingly must describe as "really fucking thick." A common thread, I've noticed, is an infuriating lack of confidence, a lack of creativity, and an ingrained belief that English is "difficult." Many of these students seem absolutely petrified of being wrong, petrified of sticking their foot into something so "difficult." They sometimes freeze to the point where they will stare at their text book, not talking to me, not talking to their classmates, and stay silent, afraid of mistakes they have not yet made.

I've told several students that mistakes are a natural part of language learning. Also, I believe that language is communication, not grammar or vocabulary. The primary purpose of English is to communicate your ideas. I tell them to concern themselves with communication in the broad sense first, and to make refinements later. I've gotten some promising results with this sort of explanation, but on a few, it just doesn't take.

By de-emphasizing the bugbears of grammatical perfection and rote vocabulary memorizatiion, I've found that I can boost confidence in people, but only to a point. I don't have some sort of magical Tony Robbins Success Ray that I can zap my students with and turn them into world-beating go-getters. I can only encourage them to the best of my abilities. And damn, does it suck when the best of your abilities isn't good enough. To try, and try, and try with a completely unconfident student is infuriating.

To be honest, I sometimes feel slightly cruel. Think of a P.E. teacher, looking at a track, admiring the fast students and thinking of those in last place as lagging losers. That P.E. teacher would be a real bastard, right? I've wondered if I'm any different, if I'm a sort of intellectual bastard for having my preferences. But I doubt if anyone has a big enough heart to escape that feeling, to be free of favoritism for the strong and lack thereof for the weak. I seriously doubt that there is a teacher out there who really does love, support, and admire all their students equally and benevolently.

Not only cruel, though, but I also feel slightly ineffective. Obviously, they were able to learn some English- enough to be able to have a basic conversation with a native speaker. I've wondered why, with these unconfident, uncreative students, I'm not able to duplicate or emulate the conditions in which they learned the basics of English. I strongly suspect that at lower levels they used Japanese as a crutch (which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing) and cannot adapt when that crutch is removed.

While I do want to help these few (yes, I want to reemphasize few- most of my students are just fine) students, my general sense of sympathy can only extend so far. I've found myself indulging in contempt for some of them, wondering how on earth they could exhibit such a sheer lack of balls and imagination.

I cannot pick and choose whom I teach, though. These people come to the school, pay for lessons, and I'm professionally obligated to somehow meet their needs. While my favorite students (the smart ones) and the average ones are no problem, my only choice is to reconcile myself to the fact that the "really fucking thick" ones are part of my routine. They exist, they come to class, and I need to try something with them.