Archive for November, 2009

On the utter insanity of the English recitation contest

I wish I could convey the utter insanity of the English recitation contest. They are held every year, all over Japan, for Japanese schoolkids to demonstrate their mastery of English. Actually, there are two types of competition: the recitation contest, where all of the competitors recite a passage that has been chosen for them; and the speech contest, where the competitors write their own passage and then recite it. It sounds boring, and in many ways it is. In many other ways it’s just batshit crazy.

I have now attended two recitation contests, having coached several students in preparation for both. The challenges for most Japanese students of English are as follows: pronouncing the individual sounds; getting the intonation and breathing right; and remembering all the words. You’ll notice that understanding is not any sort of prerequisite. For my students there seems to be an additional challenge, which is just to understand how hard the students at other schools are prepared to work in their wild-eyed pursuit of victory. I know from their teachers that some of the winning students prepare for the competition a year in advance, and rehearse their lines almost every day – coming in at weekends in their bid to get the pronunciation right. I’m lucky if my students actually turn up after we’ve agreed a time for rehearsals.

To judge by the results on the day, though, they’re not alone. Like I say, words actually aren’t enough to convey the utter madness of spending three hours watching kids who can’t pronounce ‘th’ or ‘l’ or ‘r’ reciting the same, austere passage about a Japanese diplomat, with enough emotion for about fifteen Hollywood blockbusters and intonation that is just as much of a rollercoaster ride.

Some of them even use sign-language for emphasis. During most recent contest, for example, there’s a line that goes: “The youngest child, Hiroki, came to the window too, and asked his mother what the people outside wanted.” At that point, one of the students actually drew an imaginary window in the air, then crouched down and pretended to be a child peering over the windowsill and then looking up to his mother. On the one hand it’s just as well or otherwise I’d have had no idea what he was saying; on the other hand it’s a bit like one of those over-literal karaoke videos, and if I could have understood what he’d been saying, there’d have been no need for mime.

After the contest another English teacher was chatting to my student, explaining that it’s time to start practicing for next year’s competition. I don’t anticipate any rehearsals any time soon. As I say, my students just don’t understand how hard kids at other schools are prepared to work. And I don’t really blame them – I’m not sure learning a speech that they don’t understand is really going to help their English…

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Classroom discipline

The single thing that I’m finding most difficult about my new life in Japan is classroom discipline. Which is something I never thought I’d say. As I think I mentioned already, while I was being oriented by the people in Tokyo, we were repeatedly warned that they handle discipline differently over here, and we were repeatedly told that warned that we are not responsible for discipline: since we are expected to be accompanied by another, proper, teacher at all times, we are also expected to let them maintain discipline so that we can get on with our jobs of being friendly and cheerful in English.

But like I say, we were warned that we might not see signs of discipline in the classroom, because, apparently, classroom discipline in Japan takes place outside the classroom: in the version described in Tokyo, classroom harmony is maintained by subject teachers using their own free time to work in tandem with homeroom teachers, parents and students to ensure good behaviour in lessons.

The only thing that has in common with the version that takes place in my classes is that I see no sign of discipline in the classroom. Many of my students don’t listen to me. They refuse to answer questions, or write down answers, or speak in English. They play with their DS, or their phone, or with playing cards that they’ve just made by ripping up the worksheet that I just gave them. They go to sleep on their desks. They play with scissors. They climb on their chairs to shout abuse at their friends in the back of the room. They swear at me in Japanese. And I am left to teach on my own fairly often, to cover for sick or otherwise absent teachers. Even when I am accompanied by another teacher, I’m pretty much expected to teach on my own, and it’s rare that the other teacher will intervene or assist me, other than to provide a perfunctory translation of anything that the students are finding difficult.

But I also see no sign of discipline outside the classroom, either. I mean, maybe it happens, but if it does, it certainly doesn’t trickle down to my classes. Every so often the students will be inspected to make sure that they are complying with rules about uniform: teachers will measure the length of the girls’ skirts with rulers, or cut the boys’ hair for them in the staff room to make sure it’s not too long. When we were looking for a flat, it turns out that the lady from the letting agency had a son who used to go to my school, until he got kicked out for not telling them that he’d taken his motorbike test (it would have been fine, if only he’d got permission). But nothing seems to be done about kids who spit chewing-gum on the floor during lessons, or kids who walk out of my classes. (That last one happened to me last week, in a lesson that I was teaching on my own.)

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. It’s not like all of this stuff happens all of the time. Most of my classes pass without incident: the most common form of misbehaviour is just a sullen, silent refusal to answer questions, rehearse dialogues, or to complete worksheets. And some classes are better behaved than others – usually in direct relation to the teacher who is teaching them. But there is not a week that passes without some example of badly behaving students. So I have been experimenting with different techniques.

I’ve started counting while waiting for the students to listen, which has mixed results. I’ve started making all of the students stand up until they answer questions (students who answer can choose to allow the students in their row or column to sit down too). I’ve started to cancel games in the middle if students misbehave. But I have yet to find a panacea, and so I still find my mood veering between extremes from class to class, depending on the students and how well the classes go, and I’ve found that my attitude towards the students has got progressively worse (and vice versa: I’m certainly no longer flavour of the month like I was back in August). I wish it wasn’t the case, because I would really like to help the minority of students who do seem to want to learn English. But I have yet to find a solution beyond the one that all of the other teachers seem to have fallen back on: not caring about misbehaving students. That’s not something I’m quite ready to accept. Like they say in Japan: Ganbarimasu! Onwards and upwards!

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Racist Japan

The Japanese are well racist – everyone knows that. Or the internet does anyway; log on to any expat forum and you’ll find it’s full of complaints and complainers. They call foreigners ‘gaijin’, which is bad, apparently. They don’t allow foreigners to rent houses, apparently. They won’t let you in to bars, or baths, and woe betide you if you’ve got a tattoo. All of these things are true, of course, but they’re equally true of pretty much any part of the world. My Japanese wife once went into a pub in proudly multicultural London only for the landlady to shout, “NO DVDs” at her. Presumably she assumed that my wife was a DVD or something, but she was actually just a Japanese woman, who wanted a piss. A year or two later, when we were trying to move to Hereford, several of the letting agencies had signs up on their doors saying that Polish people weren’t welcome. (About a year after that a schoolboy was stabbed to death about a hundred yards from our new house after a racially motivated altercation.)

I offer these anecdotes not to justify the racist behaviour that very clearly does exist in Japan; just to demonstrate that it is wrong to characterise Japan and the Japanese as any more racist than any other place or people. But, having hitherto had no firsthand experience of any sort of racism in Japan , I encountered my first bit over the weekend. I was visiting Shinjuku, in Tokyo, and I was in a rush so I asked a policeman for directions. In return, he asked me for my Gaikokujin Tourokushou (or 外国人登録証 for anyone with Japanese fonts installed). It’s a card that foreigners are, by law, required to carry (which, in itself, is a little bit racist, but not really, because while they don’t have to carry ID, Japanese nationals are expected to register themselves on various local registers).  

Anyway, by coincidence I had recently chanced upon firebrand foreigner Debitu Aruido’s advice for anyone who might find themselves asked to display their gaijin card. So I followed it and asked the policeman (who, actually, was probably some sort of community variant thereof) why he wanted to see my ID. He very politely told me that there were foreign criminals in the area, so it was just a spot check. And then he copied down all of my details, while chatting to me about Yamanashi, where I live, and how I met my wife etc. Once he’d done that, he very politely escorted me to where I needed to go.

As indignities go, it was a pretty dignified one. It was certainly less annoying than the two occasions that London’s police stopped me to see if getting blown up by terrorists had inspired me to carry a bomb in my bag (just as an FYI for the police: if I ever do decide to carry a bomb in my bag, I’m going to wait until the precise moment you accost me to search my bag, and then I’m going to blow it up). But I guess it was still an indignity. So I decided to seek my revenge by wreaking drunken havoc on my way home later that night.

Once upon a time, two or three years ago, I was on a train home from celebrating New Year’s Eve in Kamakura. It was about 3 or 4 am and the train was silent, because everybody was tired and cold. I was, like several other passengers, napping. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t silent. It was loud and American. A bunch of drunken foreigners got on the train. One of them was a short, fat, ponytailed guy with bad skin and a purple velvet suit. He proceeded to accost all of the passengers on the train, loudly, in English, to ask them if they’d had a nice night, or to ask them if they thought he was drunk, or whatever drunken idiocy had just occurred to him. I mean, he actually woke people. He woke me up! Sure, by that point, after enduring about ten minutes of this inebriated cabaret, I was only pretending to sleep. But still, he woke me up. I didn’t reply. I just glared. Apparently I glared pretty badly, because at that point his friends shushed him and he sat down with a drunkenly exaggerated apology.

On Saturday night, in return for being asked for my gaijin card, I became that foreigner. Having consumed lots of sake, plum wine, and lager with a friend from university, I proceeded to disturb the last train silence by using LOUD PIDGIN JAPANESE to ask if I was on the right train, or which station to change from the express to the local train, or if this was the right stop etc. And then I met my wife in a local family restaurant where I messed up everyone’s wa by explaining that MY WIFE IS ALREADY HERE and taking up too much room at the table etc.

In retrospect it’s a bit embarrassing. But it’s only what racist Japan had coming to it.

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I signed up for this?

So yes, I’m In Japan. I’ve been in Japan since August, as a participant of the JET programme, which is a scheme that places mostly English-speaking foreigners into Japanese classrooms as Assistant Language Teachers. I applied for a place on the programme around this time last year, for several reasons. One is that I wanted to improve my ability to speak and understand Japanese. Another is that I wanted to regain control of my leisure hours, having spent the last ten years doing various jobs that make a mockery of 9-to-5. And having been inspired by so many of the people who taught me, I also wanted to see if I could teach, and if I enjoyed it.

Having done quite a lot of research into other people’s JET experiences, it seemed to me that my biggest problem in Japan was likely to be filling up all of my free time. On the internet, the most common criticism of the JET experience seemed to be (and still seems to be!) that JETs are given very little to do; on the internet the most common grip seems to be that many JETs spend little time in the classroom, and they spend that time simply reciting words and phrases at their fellow teacher’s direction – a practice that has given rise to the phrase ‘human tape recorder’.

My reality is very different. Almost entirely the opposite, in fact: I’m mostly too busy to study Japanese; I have spent more than one night working into the early hours devising lesson plans; and I don’t really have complete freedom to teach, because I have to slot my lessons into someone else’s curriculum.

I’ve been told that most of the JETs in my prefecture teach between four and twelve lessons a week. That seems very low to me, because I know several who teach at least as many hours as me (perhaps the reason there aren’t so many JETs complaining about working too hard is because they’re too busy working to use the internet). I teach about nineteen hours of lessons a week, eighteen of which I have to plan. Apart from teaching, I also have to coach students for various recitation contests, I have to supervise the cleaning of one of the school corridors, and I have to do marking (which can take as much time as the lesson itself). Twice each term, I also have to devise and mark tests for all of my classes. It often adds up to more hours than there are in a 9-to-5 week.

One of the weird things about all of these lessons, though, is that I basically teach them all on my own. In theory, ALTs are supposed to work with a Japanese teacher, working in tandem to promote English-speaking and cultural harmony. In practice, it seems that most ALTs find themselves reciting words and phrases, but like I say, my experience is different: my experience is that the other teacher (there are eight in my school) just sits in the room and watches me give my lesson. The weird thing about that is that I have no idea what these students learn in the rest of their classes. Their textbooks contain an impenetrable jumble of prose and grammar points, arranged in a seemingly random fashion, and the other teachers seem to unwilling or unable to provide me with any clarity, except to ask me to base my lessons on the textbook.

Since I’m following these randomly arranged textbooks, I don’t have the freedom to devise my own curriculum. The problem with that is that the majority of my students don’t seem to be able to understand the textbook. At a recent conference for ALTs, I discovered that I use the same textbook with my third-year students as other schools use with their first-years – except those first-years seem to be able to understand it better than my third-years. That makes basing lessons on the textbook pretty fruitless, so mostly I just steal lessons for younger students off the internet. And the problem with *that* is that all of the teaching resources online seem to be aimed at adults, or elementary school kids, or assume that students have acquired some knowledge of English over the course of their studies. Or they’re written by imbeciles. There are even – laughably – lesson plans online that assume students will be quite happy to find a partner and practice saying some pre-prepared snippet of English dialogue to each other. Three months into my lessons, I have yet to see a single student voluntarily speaking any English in the classroom.

So I plug away, with my games of Pictionary, or charades, convincing myself that these are in some way helping my students to increase their comprehension of English, even though I would much rather just have them repeat English sentences after me for 50 minutes each lesson. And the other teachers continue to offer me pretty much no feedback on whether they think my lessons are relevant or useful to the students (even though I have been diligently giving them feedback questionnaires, as requested by the organisers of the JET scheme – most of them aren’t returned).

And I’m so busy doing so, that I have no time to improve my Japanese. I am expected to speak English in the classroom, my wife refuses to speak to me in Japanese at home, and outside of classes, I’m too busy to speak to anyone in Japanese. So while there are many other upsides, I’m not sure that the JET experience has been a resounding success in terms of my original aims.

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A moving story

I’ve just moved house. You might remember I was living in a complete shithole. So we looked for a new place, and we found one, and now we’re living in it.

I’m surprised at how simple it all was. Having read so much and been told so often about racist Japanese landlords and letting agencies, I was expecting to have a hard time finding a new place. I guess it helps that my wife is Japanese, but I’m not sure how much: on email (which is how she corresponded with most of the letting agencies) she has a western surname; and even just the other month, the assistant French language at my school told me that even though he has a French wife, he had found it difficult to find somewhere to live.

But after a few weeks of hard searching, my wife finally found a bigger, newer apartment, a little bit further away from my school, but with a twentieth century toilet and in front of a cute little park. To help us move our belongings, we hired a man with a van. In my experience, of English man-with-vans, their vans tend to be pretty small and they expect you to do half the work. Our Japanese man with a van turned up about half an hour early. Peering out of our (old) window, I could see that his van was also small, and full of stuff. Then he set to work. First, he transformed his van, lifting the roof and sides to make it bigger. Next, he took out all of his stuff, which turned out to be a series of straps, wrapping, and blankets that he laid down on our floor to keep the floor clean and our belongings from getting broken by the floor. Then, finally, he came inside and insisted that we didn’t lift a finger. He carried everything, and I mean everything, including our washing-machine, on his own – wrapping it carefully and then filling up his van like he was playing some massive puzzle from Professor Layton.

At the other end, he unloaded everything with the same meticulous neatness, installed our washing-machine with replacement parts from his own supply, and then gave us a discount because he did it so quickly, so we got the whole thing for about fifty quid. And he wouldn’t even accept a drink!

So now we’re living in a new apartment, we’ve got a huge new fridge, a brand new telly, and a Iovely sofa bed. But the best bit is that I can now, finally take a shit in a real toilet, without my knees banging against the door.

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