Lessons in Japanese Subtleties

Well I have felt really needed all day. There was no time for the teachers to explain what they’d planned for me today. They were busy getting equip,emt ready for the lesson ( I carried it to the classroom as they were rescueing bits and pieces from the stores). Fair enough. So it turns out that the kids are writing about their pictures and then speaking in front of the whole clas ‘This is a picture of me with my Mum, we are on holiday’…etc etc. The equipment is to blow the relevant pictures up onto the slide screen so that the class can look at the relevant image and ask questions.

Which they do….Um so what am I meant to be doing? At first I walk around the class as per whilst they are filling out their descriptions/ making last minute alterations. I bend down and point out errors to various kids…but apparently thats not right today. Oh is it a test I ask…nope it’s apparently not a test.

Now when I point out errors it should be pointed out that I do so in the same way as in England: ‘Is that correct?’ then the kid knows (unless really not up on things) that somethings wrong but I haven’t told them the answer. But today they get no help from me…the other teachers (there are two for the third year classes) however do help. And in one case rewrite one kids descriptive piece.

Eventually, presumably tired of me peering uselessly at kids work without being able to help, one of the teachers pulls a chair to the back of the class. ‘You can sit on that if you are tired’…well it’s only 9am so I smile back, ‘no I’m not tired, can I help you?’. Nope apparently I can’t help. Not today for some reason. But ‘You can sit on that if you are tired’ is repeated until I get the point. I sit at the back of the class and wonder if maybe I’m supposed to be assessing the kids speeches once they do them; if I’m doing that then I guess it kind of makes sense for me not to help them writing the things.

So I sit and wait and eventually get to listen to the kids talking. I make notes. They’re four/five line descriptions of the photos; there’s not much to make notes on. Then the other kids ask questions. Eventually I get fed up of the same questions being asked (How old were you? Who took the picture?), especially when the question has already been answered in the speech. Now ok repetition has it’s place but these kids are third years and are much more capable than that. So I throw in a question or two for the speakers. (‘Where is that?’ ‘How long ago was it taken?) They are questions that are roughly the same as ones that they have memorised from their ‘warm up sheet’ and answer at the beginning of every lesson every week. Most kids answer fine, a couple struggle, one to my eternal shame burst into tears (‘Who is that girl?’ It turned out to be her sister but she couldn’t remember how to say ‘She’ and the class laughed when she said ‘He’, bastards).
After the crying incident I am told not to ask any questions in the next class because my questions are ‘too difficult’.

So we head to the second class. I have not been asked to give any sort of assessment on the first class but the Reincarnation does ask what I was writing. I show her the assessments. She says ‘Oh. Do not do that.’ Why? Because I don’t have to….well what am I supposed to be doing in this class? Not only am I a spare wheel but all the ways I could have been useful I’ve been told not to do. In the second class I get sat at the back. I write out a lesson evaluation instead of making notes, although yes the evaluation is based on learning outcome evidence in the speeches. This time at the end she does ask me to give some pointers to the class as a whole. My pointers are about saying ‘my’ father instead of ‘me’ father (although were I at home I’m fairly sure I’d say ‘me Dad’ but anyway) and ‘his’ sister rather than ‘he’ sister. My advice is aparently ‘too hard’ and she will not translate it because they are ok saying ‘me’ and ‘he’ instead of ‘my’ and ‘his’. (Most of the kids seem to know what I’m saying without her translation, or at any rate make little scribbles in their notebooks after I said it.)

What? The second years and first years say ‘my’ and ‘his’, for one thing it’s correct English! Why am I suddenly relegated into being a classroom ornament? What did I do wrong? The absolutely most awful thing was yet to come. After doing precisely nothing in the third lesson: ‘Please do not write, it is distracting.’, ‘Please do not help them.’, ‘Please do not ask questions, they are too hard.’, ‘Please sit here.’, ‘Please do not give advice, they do not understand.’. Literally I sat at the back while the other two teachers walked around and helped the class, the pupils spoke at the front and questions were asked in unrecognisable English (the worst that I have heard since I got here) and the teacher made sure I didn’t say a word, any corrections would be too hard for them to understand afterall!

In anycase the fourth lesson was different, this class are behind the rest and still learning their questions. Today they were given a sheet with English questions on one side and Japanese on the other. They did an excercise which meant they learnt the English versions of the Japanese; basically they were in pairs, one partner saying the phrase in Japanese and the other saying it back in English. Then we had to test their knowledge. So they all stand up and the teacher asks me to read the questions to them so they can recite back to me the equivalent. I ask the first question. ‘oh…no!’ she says ‘In Japanese’. Well it’s ‘How are you?’ So I can manage that: ‘o genki desu ka’ I say and they dutifully recite back ‘How are you?’ and I can do the next two too. The fourth question is luckily written in hiragana and so I sound it out slowly.’ee-tsu-oo-ma-re-ta-no’ ‘When were you born?’ they chant back. The next question has some kanji but luckily it’s a place name and it’s written in English on the other side. Of course I only get five questions in before most of the questions are written in kanji. I can’ t read kanji. I can read hiragana and katakana slowly and I can do numbers and easy words in kanji (like mountain, ear or hand) but I can’t make out sentences like ‘What did you do last weekend’ in kanji.
So I look up at the teacher apologetically. ‘I can’t read kanji’ I say. ‘Please sit here, you look tired.’ she says and reads the rest of the questions. I do nothing for the rest of the class, relegated to the back by my inability to read Japanese.

I’ve been here for four months and I can’t get kanji to stay in my head; they’re just too complex and my verbal vocabulary isn’t big enough yet. I can ask the kids if they like SMAP and understand if they say yes, no, they hate SMAP, they prefer Queen (suck-ups!). I can’t write that question in kanji, I can’t read it if written by an adult, if written by an elementary school pupil then yes I can. And yes I feel pissed off at myself, I know I’m not learning Japanese as fast as I should but it’s a hard language and I don’t have enough opportunities to read and write it. But I’m not exactly happy with the teacher. And this week it feels distinctly as though the English teachers are trying to tell me something.

I am the English ALT. Now up til about a fortnight ago they were using my Spanish speaking skills as well (thank gods that got changed: apparently the immigrant kids no longer need that sort of support as they are settling in well. Much as I love the kids that really makes my headache to listen to half-Portuguese half-Spanish, reply in Spanish, sliding into French if I don’t concentrate; then walk out of the lesson into the Japanese-speaking staffroom! ARGH!) But really I’m employed because I speak English. I can tell kids if they’re not speaking correct English, help them write better English, give them confidence in listening to spoken English, lend them easy English books to read, etc. But when you stop me doing any of that, then what do you want me in a lesson for? To speak and read Japanese? But my Japanese has a bad accent and I don’t know what I’m saying half the time if I’m reading it off a page, unlike the kids in the third year I haven’t done three years plus of Japanese! I’m supposed to help their English…not be a classroom ornament.

It felt like I’d done something wrong and this was their way of not-quite telling me. Like yesterday when Ping-Pong Lady told me ‘The children ask me a lot why you wear perfume’. Now actually, I don’t wear perfume (unless I’m going out) I did, until I started using this coconut moisturiser, which doesn’t go with Burberry Weekend, my perfume of choice for everyday. However I started this ‘rumour’ about myself by answering ‘yes’ to a question in my introductory lesson to the second year. ‘Do you like perfume?’ which got the response ‘I like your coconut perfume’, I blushed and said thankyou rather than explain that it was my moisturiser she could smell. I mean how do you say moisturiser in Japanese anyway?
Ping-Pong Lady informed me yesterday she didn’t think people needed to wear perfume.

Was that her telling me I shouldn’t wear perfume? I get the distinct feeling I’m being criticised this week, but I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.

9 thoughts on “Lessons in Japanese Subtleties

  1. Dude, that shit is wacked. What the hell? Oh, and you can just say the word lotion (ro-shan) for moisturizer. Sounds to me like your fellow teachers are all PMSing at the same time or something. What a pain in the ass.
    Won’t let you correct their English? 3rd years??? Gods, our teachers don’t even let 1st years get away with saying he instead of his! What are these teachers thinking? These kids have to TEST into high school!!
    Ok, I’m done ranting. We’ll have fun on Sat, so let the stress roll off your back.

  2. That… is… somewhat… weird. Hunh.

    Presumably there is an explanation but I gotta say I’m damned if I have the first clue what it is.

  3. Yes, Ping Pong was making a comment on your lotion that has a nice smell. You smell nice, so therefore you’re a strumpet… Maybe it’s not that bad, but I’ve encountered the same sort of comments from the female teachers, they think I don’t understand, but it doesn’t take a genius to get the implication. Call it the Japanese version of the Feminine Mystic. But I don’t have to tell you this you know already.

    One of my elementary school classes likes to include me in special things. One time my 6th year class had a lesson on morality. It was a big deal, the homeroom teacher taught at the front, there was a camera taping all this, and all the Teachers were in the back taking notes (even the office secretary, although he just stood there with me exchanging glances.) I stood there straining to understand the lesson, but kept coming across words I didn’t understand. They didn’t want me to do anything, they just wanted me there. I’ve found that this is a country that values idea of "50 percent of doing something is just showing up." They just wanted your presence, for no real reason, only just to have you do something. I’m getting used to this idea.

  4. Just think of what a wonderful ornament you make πŸ™‚

    I can understand your frustration at not feeling like you have a purpose -or, even worse, that you have a purpose which you’re being prevented from fulfilling – as I’ve walked out of many jobs like that. I know it’s certainly not that easy for you, and I can’t offer any advice (circumstances being slightly different!) but is there some big honcho you can accost? If attitudes towards you have distinctly changed, then perhaps they’ve simply got over the "novelty" of having someone there and the teachers want to get back their sense of authority and superiority?
    Still, you certainly don’t deserve it; if you’re there to help with English, they should bloody well let you do that. Maybe you should slip into a strong English dialect and jabber at them until they realise that they don’t know everything!

  5. And I second Lucrecia, both on the wonderful ornament and the dialect thing.

    Blast them with Yorkshire, like you slipped into on the way to the Nationals. Ha, thousands of years of culture and refinement have nothing against a good "Ey oop, luv".

  6. I realise I sound Yorkshire to a Lancashire lad like you Archangel. But technically my accent is Lincolnshire heavily influenced by random northerness within my family!

  7. Thanks for all the ideas and comments guys!

    Well I shall see what happens on Friday (been teaching in elementary schools today!) before accosting a head honcho…actually the honcho I would normally accost was the teacher in question!

    I am beginning to wonder if maybe that lesson was about confidence boosting and thus they didn’t want me to correct the pupils and get them down over their mistakes? However I can’t see why that would mean I shouldn’t help them prepare the pieces.

    As for blasting them with an accent, I guess I could get my grandma to ring the school and talk to me for five minutes. That doesn’t half trigger it! πŸ™‚ Hey Grandma, fancy staying up late? πŸ˜‰

    Still perfume comment aside it was only one morning so I hope they haven’t ‘got over the novelty’ quite yet. Ho hum we’ll see!

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