>>> Bang for Your Buck
By staff writer David Nelson
November 20, 2005

I used to teach English in Japan. All you really need is a college diploma, a good speaking voice, and a sense of humor. For those of you thinking about doing the same after graduating, here is a report I sent back home after one month. Hopefully, it captures the culture shock that I was feeling at the time:

Dear friends and family:

Hello from Japan. Some of you wanted to know what life is like here, so let me educate you. I wake up every morning at 6:03 precisely. Well, that’s when my alarm goes off anyway. Still not able to decipher the language enough to change it. Doesn’t matter; I'm still so jet-lagged that I start to fade at about noon, but I'm fully alert just in time to see the 3AM schoolgirl panty cartoons on TV. Anyway, I need that much time to shower, dress, eat, and pack for the day. My crazy house, which used to be a doctor’s office, has some interesting features. For one thing, it has a bona fide urinal in addition to a regular toilet. I’ve been peeing in urinals all my life, but having one in your house takes some getting used to. Also, it takes about 10 minutes for the hot water to kick in, after which the water temperature increases exponentially so that I risk being boiled alive. My house uses some kind of quaint country system to heat water, probably monkeys stoking a fire underneath my house. Anyhow, there's a very small window of “comfortable shower” opportunity.

“The Japanese students like it when I discuss my personal life, which is not that instructive in a linguistic sense, but does teach them lots of dating vocabulary such as ‘striking out.'”

The only train to my school before 9 comes along at 7:35. It’s never late. If it were, the conductor would be honor-bound to commit ritual suicide. Breakfast is usually cereal or toast. Sounds pretty normal, right? My cereal of choice: Orangutan-O’s. No, I am not kidding. Bread here is also strange; loaves come sliced into six 3-inch wide pieces. I don’t know why. Bread also frequently comes with a surprise, some fruit or meat, in the center. It adds a little bit of excitement to my mornings. Chimes ring at 7:00, but I'm already up by then. The same tune that these chimes play, incidentally, is repeated at school, at the beginning and end of each period. The song itself sounds like someone just hit the “Atomically Crappy” button on their 1983 Casio keyboard. It could not be worse if it was stabbing you. Please be understanding, because without hearing it, it's impossible to describe how horrible the chime song is.

Taking the train is a wild ride. For some reason, the entire mentally handicapped population of Japan lives in Owase and takes the train with us. They mostly keep to themselves, but I occasionally get harassed by someone who wants to practice their Engrish a rittle. I’ve also discovered that the Japanese would rather stand for hours at a time than take a seat next to a foreigner. Hey, I consider that a good thing. I don't like to have my space invaded, and I've heard the Japanese have some experience in terms of invading.

Monday, Thursday, and Friday, I’m at a school called Kihoku, in a town that’s four train stops away. Cost of train ticket: 400 yen. Amount I get reimbursed:1900 yen. It’s like having a second job just for riding the train. Of course, dealing with handicapped invaders is quite a bit of work. The school itself is great. It has virtually no resources save for the creativity of the teachers. No internet, very little sports equipment, etc. For some reason, they have a huge coy pond, though. Good to have your priorities straight.

Luckily, the teachers there are great. Very young crowd. One teacher, Sachiko, has nearly perfect English, which makes her an absolute pleasure to work with. Seriously, our lessons hit on all cylinders. Not all classes go so well though. Here’s a breakdown:

Ichi-nen-sei / First Year / Equivalent of 7th grade: Far and away the best students. They come to class wide-eyed and eager to learn. They participate. They ask questions. They don’t judge you against previous teachers. They brighten your day by leaving notes in their cute, attempted English. I wish I could teach exclusively first years.

Ni-nen-sei / Second year / 8th grade: Vindictive little bastards…. I don’t know what the hell happens to these kids over the summer, but the difference between first and second year is so dramatic, you have to wonder. Their English, when they can be bothered to use it, is much, much worse than first year, somehow. They talk in class. Hell, they sleep in class. Sometimes, they talk on their cell phones in class. Not quite the stereotype of a Japanese student, is it? Teachers just put up with it, since they are not allowed by law to throw a student out of class. Discipline is a real sensitive issue in the classroom, and I am not allowed, under any circumstance, to deal with any students. So I’ve learned to just try and work through it. I remember what I was like in grade 8, after all. Of course, if I'd had a cell phone back then, it would have been the size of a brick.

San-nen-sei / 3rd year/ 9th Grade: Fall somewhere in between the first and second years in terms of quality. They have attitudes, but they know they are bound for high school next year, so some take classes a bit more seriously.

My other school, Chonan, is way richer (I can access the internet! For joy!), but the staff is a stuffy bunch. I once asked the principal which would be the best train to take home, and this caused World War 3 in the office. I don’t think he speaks a single syllable of English. He was on the phone with my supervisor, the head of the program, and probably the Prime Minister of Japan and my parents, to boot! I have tried to avoid speaking to him since.

Every day, students greet me with a “good morning” or an “ohayo gozaimasu,” as I enter the building. I change shoes (watching all that Mr. Rogers has finally come in handy). Luckily, I brought a pair of classy leather slippers. The school provides you with orange synthetic things if you don’t have any. The largest shoe size available in Japan is 26, which apparently refers to the total number of foot molecules each shoe can contain. Seriously, they’re so small here that it’s often a problem for we huge-footed gaijin.

At the start of each class, all the students get up. Here is what happens every day:

(Students get up)

Me: Good morning, boys and girls!
Students: Good morning, Mr……ah…..Mr……….(maybe one kid says: Daybido!)
Me: David. Call me David. You don’t have to say mister. Good morning, boys and girls!
Students: Good morning, Mr. David!
Me: How are you today?
Students (in utterly robotic English): I am fine thank you and how are you?
Me: I’m fine.

The educational parts of the lesson sometimes provide moments of private hilarity. For example, one lesson, I was teaching gestures and adjectives. I would yell out an adjective, and the kids would mime it, to show me they understood the English. In theory, I would call out “Hungry!,” and they would hold their stomachs. Or Imight call out “Happy!” and they would smile. This is how the lesson would work in theory, but in reality, the kids just kind of sat there, wondering who the hell this foreigner is and why he's yelling words at them. So, hitting upon a brilliant idea, I called out “Confused!” Needless to say, the kids got that one exactly right, and I told them so.

School lunch: You take your life in your hands, but at least it’s cheap. (Free at Kihoku, 300 yen at Chonan.) Some days, you luck out (fried chicken morsels, cold soba noodles, mmmmm….), other days you think about hopping on a train for the nearest McDonalds which is over an hour away. The worst, I think, is this thing called Oden, which is a kind of stew. When I have had it, it has contained such dainties as quail eggs (unrestrainedly disgusting), pieces of chicken fat, and plenty of things that I’m not fully able to identify. Which is probably for the best. The mornings are so long that the quality of school lunches can make or break one’s day. Teachers have been known to seek transfers or rearrange working schedules based on that month’s projected menu.

I get to leave school when my last class is done. Sounds great, except that the train schedule is so erratic that my departure is usually several hours after school ends anyhow. Some days, if I’m lucky, I can catch one at around 2:30…most of the time though, I’m stuck ‘til 4:30 or 6:00! If I get out early, I may go to the beach a few towns up. I use the word “may” in a literal sense, because I still haven’t managed to get to the beach. I’m going to try today (meeting my neighbor), but rumor has it there are jellyfish about. Still worth getting stung, if I can see her in a bikini. Maybe she'll have to pee on me also.

Weekends are often dull. Most foreigners in my neck of the woods get the hell out of town come the weekend. Thus far, I’ve been doing a fair bit of traveling myself. I’ve seen Kyoto, Ueno (the birthplace of both Ninjas and Haiku poetry; there's a combination for you!) and I have plans to see Ise (a very famous shrine, and home to the Sacred Mirror…I don’t know either, so don’t ask) Osaka, and Nagoya. But traveling costs a lot of money. By the same token, sitting at home, watching videos and playing Sega costs relatively little. I’m looking to come home with at least half of my salary. That might mean I have to eat ramen noodles every day, but hey, I was doing that in Toronto! We’ve started a tradition of going out to dinner Monday nights. This Monday, it was a coffee shop called Boo, and I had bacon and cheese spaghetti. It was actually really tasty. Next week, it will be an allegedly French restaurant with a Moroccan name (Cous Cous) with a menu that was recently changed from Greek to Italian. Why not?

Tuesdays I teach an adult conversation class. It’s pretty much illegal to moonlight, but there's someone from my office in the class. So I think people look the other way, or else they're not able to distinguish one gaijin from another and think I might actually be two people. I teach at the advanced level, and everyone who attends has excellent English. It’s nice to put the Linguistics degree to some use, as I try to infuse each lesson with a healthy dose of formal grammar. Whether they want it or not. So far, I’ve tackled the use of the modals (could, should, would), word order, etc. I think they enjoy the class more when I talk about Canada (moose, maple syrup, Bryan Adams, that sort of thing). For what it’s worth, I spent half an hour explaining the difference between Canadian and American English. As far as they know, the only two differences are: Eh? and the pronunciation of the word “about” (aboot). They like it even more when I discuss my personal life, which is not that instructive in a linguistic sense, but does teach them lots of dating vocabulary such as “striking out.”

I want to start taking a martial arts class here. On Fridays, I intend to start taking Tai Chi. Technically, this is not a Japanese martial art (being neither Japanese nor a martial art) but at least the instructor speaks some English. No matter that the rest of the class is composed of grandmothers for whom moving an arm 3 inches is the equivalent of a marathon. It's not as active as say, kendo, where the object is to bop your opponent on the noggin with a great bamboo whacking sword whilst screaming menacingly, but it'll do.

I usually watch a video to round out the night. There are only so many cherry blossoms one can contemplate. The video store in Owase has an interesting selection. A lot of stuff I would be too embarrassed to rent back home, like Look Who’s Talking 3, Police Academy 29, etc. I also rent movies that aren’t total crap, and that I haven’t seen before. Not surprisingly, the video store has a selection of pornography that would rival most seedy places in New York. Of course, as I don't exactly blend into a crowd here, I keep my distance. I occasionally see the same grandmother types who take the Tai Chi class perusing the porn section, for what reason I cannot possibly imagine, and wouldn't want to try.

So that's a typical day for me. I'll write some more later, if I don't die from eating poison blowfish.


Well, needless to say, I overcame my culture shock, found my niche, and wound up staying for two wild and wonderful years. This type of experience is not for everyone, but if you have no other plans after graduation, I highly recommend it. Just stay away from natto. Trust me on that.

Essential New Word of the Day:
mallula\‘maljulâ\ n: A tiny, sad little mall, often found in the suburbs, containing very few stores, fewer customers, and with the air of a place that people only go because there's absolutely nothing else nearby. The original mallula is in Toronto. There's not a single store anyone would recognize, and every so often, they install a pathetic little petting zoo for the kiddies. There's nothing like smelling goat crap as you do your shopping. The “-ula” suffix has proved to be quite versatile, and as a result of mallula's success as word, can now be applied to almost any noun to denote smallness. Accordingly, the smallest piece of pizza is a sliceula. Every guy but me has a dickula. You get the idea.