Tenniscoats – Ue wo muite arukou

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How to be wrong when you are right.

Sometimes my students of junior high school age bring me their school tests to have a look at. I praise or commiserate as appropriate and then, when they have gone home, I go bright red and get all blustery and angry as I rant to my poor wife about how it is little wonder so few people here develop any confidence in speaking English.

Today’s blood-pressure raising annoyance was the all too common occurrence of a student writing an answer that is absolutely correct and being marked as wrong because it isn’t the answer the teacher had in mind. I have seen a child have the word ‘dad’ marked wrong (it should have been ‘father’), and the answer, ‘I am from Tokyo,’ marked wrong as an answer to, ‘Where are you from?’ (it should have been ‘I am from Japan.’) to give just two previous examples. This time, a student was supposed to answer a question on a test with the phrase,  ‘Do you want me to ask him to call you?’ but the student wrote, ‘Shall I ask him to call you?’ and was marked wrong. Now perhaps, perhaps if what they were doing was attempting a direct and extremely inflexible translation (and those certainly seem to be the most popular kinds here) I could see the teacher’s point. But they weren’t doing that. They were asked to insert an appropriate phrase for asking if the caller wanted the unavailable person to return the call. And I think, ‘Shall I ask him to call you?’ is just fine in that regard.

Now, I know teachers have to teach to tests and have an eye on entrance exams and whatnot. I don’t blame them for an educational system that means communicative competence has to take a back seat to fill in the blank exercises or the existence of ‘oral communication’ classes in which there is no speaking. I’m not ranting that everything must change and now! I am simply stating that students who are at least making admirable attempts to do well and writing good, correct English should be allowed the small joy of being rewarded for their efforts. What good is there in knocking the confidence out of a teenager who comes to realise he not only has to learn a language, he also has to guess the one and only correct answer out of many possibilities? Or perhaps he doesn’t have to guess. I haven’t checked but perhaps the question, ‘Do you want me to ask him to call you?’ was the one in the textbook and therefore the correct one to remember. But you just can’t be that rigid, for heaven help the students when they try to speak to real people and discover that those people might not engage in conversation entirely in phrases from a Japanese English text book. Mind you, I suppose it might be quite nice if they did, as Japanese people’s English communicative ability would suddenly improve immensely, almost like a magic.

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In Praise of the Bow

On my recent trip home to the UK, I had another unfortunate greeting incident. It served to reinforce my belief that the Japanese have got it right with the bow.

I was at a large family Christmas gathering where, as well as my parents and my brothers and their wives and children, my brothers’ wives’ families were in attendance. That’s where it all got a bit complicated on the greetings front. In Japan I would have bowed to one and all. Simple. Oh, I know that there are rules about depths of bows and lengths of bows and whatnot but, as a foreigner, leeway is permitted and you can simply offer your bow as best you see fit and carry on knowing that you probably haven’t caused too much offence. In the country of my birth you would surely think that I should know the rules and conventions of greetings better, but I don’t. Instead I end up trying to kiss people who don’t want to be kissed or stiffly rebuffing someone who is just trying to be nice.

With immediate family, I’m fine. We know where the hugs and kisses are expected. And in Japan, with Japanese people, I am also fine; bowing holds no problems. With sister-in-laws’ sisters and parents and such, though, I get all confused. Some I know fairly well in that we have met often, but some very much less so. At this Christmas gathering, the elderly aunt of my brother’s wife approached me. She wished me a merry Christmas and we clasped hands. But it was Christmas, so I thought perhaps I should be kissing her cheek. She thought a handshake was enough. She was much smaller than me and didn’t seem to register that I was going to plant a kiss on the cheek and I’m not really sure how it happened but I ended up making an awkward lunge over and above an impressively old lady I barely knew and somehow finding myself kissing the very top of her head. The only way I could have made it more embarrassing would have been to then announce, ‘I love you!’

Later, as I was standing in the corner of the room, my brother sidled over. We chatted over our beers and then, as I took a largish glug, he let a small pause settle before saying. ‘I noticed you kissing Angela’s aunt on the head.’

‘Yeah,’ I said regretfully. ‘I didn’t mean it.’

‘It was a bit weird.’ said my brother.

And then we stood in silent contemplation at the awkwardness that had led me to kiss an old lady as if she were a toddler with a grazed knee.

With a bow there is no room for that sort of palaver. You never have to explain to a room-full of people that you weren’t actually being hopelessly weird or sleazy, but rather you are just absurdly British.

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Getting Comfortable In The Classroom

This is a small sample of my Kindle book – Lifer – How To Be A Bald Middle-Aged English Conversation Teacher in Japan.

All of my classes then were on-site. The students came to us. They were a mixed bunch. You had shy junior high school students, businessmen who needed to improve their English for work, housewife hobbyists, those who enjoyed travelling abroad and some who just thought learning English was cool. Some students were industrious and tried hard to improve, some wanted to improve but weren’t prepared to put in any effort to do so. Some seemed to have a facility for languages, others would still be greeting you with a, loud, ‘Nice to meet you!’ every class even after a year’s worth of lessons. Some had nothing to say in their own language and seemed to want to learn how to do it in English. Some were pleasant and chatty, friendly and normal, and some were weird and prone to taking questions such as ‘How are you today?’ a bit too literally. Like the young fellow who replied without hesitation, ‘To tell the truth, I think I have a bowel cancer.’ He didn’t, but his announcement certainly took the fun out of the start of the lesson. It was hard to know how to react. ‘Really? Bowel cancer! Sorry to hear that. Anyway, today let’s learn about the weather. WEATHER!’

I once read a book somewhere in which the author stated that teaching English is like being a really poorly paid chat show host. There is some truth in that. You have to understand and read your students’ personalities. You have to be able to draw speech from them, to encourage them to expand on answers. They may not have hilarious  showbiz anecdotes, but you need to try and draw discussions and dialogues from them. Yes, you need to learn all about grammar and functions of language and somehow impart that knowledge, but more than that you need to make students comfortable enough to play with such language, to experiment with it, to use it. And that is a skill that comes through experience.

It comes. You learn as you go. You learn as you observe other teachers. You learn as you experiment. You learn as you read. But it’s not all about the language and the classroom dynamic. No, there are other issues that come to light. There are things you may never have considered that suddenly need your attention and forethought. For me it was my body. Suddenly my body was a source of many shames.

The biggest culprit was my stomach. I discovered, you see, that my stomach rumbles like no other stomach on earth. I don’t just mean I get the odd hunger pang; I mean that my stomach is like an impertinent child who can’t stand a moment’s silence. At the slightest pause in a lesson, and particularly, it would seem, in one-on-one classes with young housewives it would jump in with some quite anti-social outbursts and become painfully embarrassing. And it was proud to show off its enormous repertoire. It had a quite astonishing array of digestive noises. My stomach, I learned, can produce everything from mild hunger grumblings to something akin to coffee percolation, which feels like bubbles inside, to deep grumbles which make it sound like it is trying to communicate with far off elephant chums. So, if I didn’t eat enough at lunch I got those noises, and if I did have a big lunch I got squeaks and juicy digestive gurglings and those horrible withheld farts that come down slowly and then are blocked by clenched buttocks and forced to ascend back inside with a huge intestinal growl. You know, like a colonic lava lamp. And you can’t stop them once they start. In fact, like labour contractions, they increase in frequency until they are finally expelled and that can’t very well be done in class now, can it?

I tried everything to quell the noise and nothing seemed to work. I tried sudden body straightening and near bent-double crouching in an attempt to smother the sound but all to no avail. Those sudden movements only served to alarm the students and alter the pitch so that, instead of the deep rumble, you might get a long, high squeal. Once I got a combination which might have been amusing were it not for the fact that it was just a timid fifty-something housewife and I in the room. I got a long squeal that terminated in a deep rumble and put me in mind of the game electronic battleships. I wanted to say, ‘F2. Hit!’ but somehow I knew she wouldn’t laugh. For the next forty minutes or so it was painful for both of us to pretend that we couldn’t hear the cacophony emanating from my bowels.

It’s something that still troubles me. I have discovered it is best not to eat within two hours of a class and, if possible, to have a good shit between eating and teaching. Otherwise, my stomach might react in any number of shameful ways. Once, I did accidentally let out a fart with a female private student. I thought I’d got away with it because it was silent. But then the smell hit. Oh, and was it ever a smell! I am still amazed at how the woman carried on as if nothing had happened. She knew it wasn’t her and yet said nothing as we sat pretending to role play asking for directions with a kind of jobbies and garlic stench enveloping us. I suppose I should have apologized, but what do you say? You can’t just interrupt someone who is telling you to turn left at the bakery to say, ‘Left at the bakery? Oh, hang on a moment, I’m dreadfully sorry, but that smell was me. You might want to close your mouth for a bit.’

Japan’s climate and weather conditions also affected my body in ways hitherto unknown. I discovered this in my first June in Japan. At about that time every year, the television informs us that the rainy season has begun. I’m not sure how they decide this. Sometimes it is raining and they say it is not yet the rainy season and at other times it may be sunny and warm but a weather forecaster will announce with confidence that the rainy season started today. Either way, it is not good news.

I found, however, that I didn’t need the help of the weather people to know the rainy season had arrived. Rather, I knew because I became, for lack of a better description, constantly moist. My entire body became as clammy as the most unpleasant of handshakes with a fat chap. To move was to sweat. I discovered a tad more publicly than I’d have desired that I really ought to avoid shirts in dark blue or grey. This realization hit me as I stood in front of a class revealing flamboyant underarm sweat stains of the kind usually favoured by bushy-bearded geography teachers in the seventies. I feared that small things would begin to grow in my body’s various folds, cracks and crevices. The only time I felt comfortable was when sitting directly under an air conditioner in nothing but my underpants.

Even cold showers are of little help at this time of year. They offer relief from the humidity for their duration but as soon as you step out of the water the sweating begins again. You dry away the shower water with a towel that is in danger of developing a small colony of mushrooms, and it is instantly replaced with perspiration. All those horrible things I could laugh at others about in Britain – sweat rashes, fungal infections, being called a smelly bastard – had become scarily self-applicable prospects.  Weather-wise June is the least enjoyable of times in Japan. If I could, I would happily spend the entire time sitting in cool air-conditioned cafes. Sooner or later, though, I know I will have to go back outside and face the wet heat. A cafe manager once explained as much as she urged me to please put my pants back on.

And so it was that sweat-disguising colours became more important than style when choosing clothes. I was making efforts to become a better teacher but I also had to develop techniques to stop students from marvelling at the sweatiness of the chap leading their class and losing their concentration due to the constant sharing of curious small bodily noises. Now, if I could just get my nose to be normal.

Yes, my nose. When I was young, I often had difficulty breathing through my nose. It had a habit of getting stuffed up. This worried me a great deal, not because I thought having a dysfunctional nose was a pain to deal with, but because I feared that if I ever got kidnapped the kidnappers would put tape over my mouth to stop me screaming and I would die of suffocation. A tad melodramatic now I think about it, but that was the most worrying thing about having a blocked nose in my youth.

I used to think that my nose problems were simply symptomatic of common colds. I never considered that I may have pollen allergies, because nobody really talked about having pollen allergies much. A few kids might have said they had hay fever, but it wasn’t any big deal. It wasn’t something with which I was remotely concerned. Until, that is, I came to Japan.

For a few years after coming here, everything was fine. I got the odd blocked nose as before but I was, I felt, a fairly normal man. I most definitely wasn’t one overflowing with snotters. I could leave my house without fretting about not having enough tissues, and I could kiss people without then having to say ‘Oh sorry,’ while dabbing a handkerchief on the viscous trail that my nose had left on their cheek. Life was fine and dandy until one warm March day someone took the spring out of my step and stuffed it deep inside my nasal cavities. Overnight, my nose became an unpredictable beast and turned me into a disgusting, sneezing, snivelling wreck. ‘What’s your teacher like?’ people would ask my students. ‘Mucusy,’ they would reply.

And I was. If my nose wasn’t completely blocked it would be gushing rivers of snot or trying to break the world record for most sneezes in a row. It would change between these conditions on a whim. It could be solidly blocked for hours on end and then suddenly decide that whatever it was that was preventing any oxygen from making it up through my nostrils should be flushed out with gallons of cascading goo or rapid-fire nose explosions. I became the sort of man who would make me gag with disgust if he sat next to me on a train.

I spent most of my time teaching with a Kleenex held against my nose and a bin filling up with discarded wet tissues. Either that or trying desperately to prevent a sneeze from coming out because, like cockroaches, there was never just one. Someone once told me that the best way to stop a sneeze is to push on the philtrum – that vertical crease just above your top lip, between the nostrils. This does actually work to some extent. But sometimes you have to push really hard, and the disadvantage comes with the fact that you trade in being an uncontrollable sneezer for looking like a right weirdo. I don’t think I helped matters by trying to disguise my technique as a peculiar way of pondering. If my students asked me questions when I could feel a sneeze coming on, I would push hard on my top lip while humming and hawing as though it were a particularly interesting question they had posed. I once turned round after writing on the whiteboard and a few kids’ hands seemed to dart very quickly away from their mouths and everybody looked a bit smirky. Cheeky bastards.

I suffered so for a while, but things came to a head one warm and windy day when I had popped into the local convenience store. I was at the cash register and the clerk had just told me the price when I felt a sneeze coming. I raised my hand and pushed hard on my philtrum while the girl serving me did an admirable job of not laughing at my peculiarity. But she was waiting to be paid and as I stood with finger on lip she pointed to the total on the register and repeated the price. I thought the moment had passed and went to open my wallet. I was wrong, though, and just managed to lay the wallet on the counter and cup my hands over my nose and mouth as I let rip with a stormer. And then I just stood there. It was slimy inside my hands and I knew that were I to remove them I would have to go through the humiliation of wiping away the snotters from my mouth and nose and between my fingers before handing over the money for my purchases. But I couldn’t do that anyway because I had neither tissue nor handkerchief. I had sleeves, but I only entertained that thought for a second. So I stood and looked at the sales clerk from above my cupped hands. She looked at me with an expression of wonder touched by fear. And then, as seconds felt like hours, I said, ‘Sumimasen,’ and ran off to the toilet with my hands still cupped in front of my face and my wallet and unpaid-for goods still on the counter.

When I returned to the register, I apologized and the girl simply repeated the price as if nothing unusual had just happened. I paid and left the shop with a mental promise never to return to that particular convenience store again.

These allergies were pissing me off and I decided it was time to do something about them. I went to the drugstore. The shop assistant asked if it was for a runny nose or a blocked nose. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘both.’ She took me to the nose medicine aisle and suggested a nasal spray. I took it home and fired it up my nostrils. And you know what? That woman saved my social graces. I don’t know what it is or why it works, but I rarely snotter all over myself these days. And I have overcome my fear of being kidnapped to boot.

So there it is. Experience in the classroom helps you learn how to teach, but it does more than that. It also makes you realize how you appear to others. You are on show and need to be aware of that. Especially if you suddenly discover that you are, in more ways than you ever thought possible, revolting.

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Joining the indie ebook authors.

Thanks to all who read and commented on my Lifer book when it was published as a blog. I’ve finally decided to stick itcontent-4537929-DIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAIL out as an ebook on Amazon. If you are new here and haven’t yet read the book, it’s quite cheap! If you buy it, you can go to bed pleased that you have managed to make a bald man happy.

Here’s what some of the people who read the blog and don’t even know me have said:

‘Loved this…thanks for keeping me up to 2 a.m. on a Sunday night.’

‘Read this all in one sitting, amazing! I genuinely laughed out loud a few times, and your perspective was very refreshing….Terrific writing, thanks a lot!’

‘As a balding English man living in Tokyo I enjoyed this a lot.’

‘Thanks for the wonderful story…The best of luck with your work and, once again, thanks for a brilliant, insightful and hilarious read.’

‘Thank you for taking the time to write that out. I felt like you were describing much of my life in parts…I am at the point of being sick to death of working for a dead-end dead-beat big eikaiwa company, but love teaching the kids and shaping their lives. So about to pull the trigger as it were, and start my own place…not easy to take the first step, but you have helped.’

‘Thank you so much. This is the funniest stuff I’ve read in ages.’

‘I’m hooked. Your book is brilliant! Can’t stop reading.’

‘I really enjoyed reading this, so much so that I read it twice in fact!’

‘I’ve just spent a couple of enjoyable hours reading this, you should definitely put it out as an ebook! Any chance of an update chapter?’

‘Thank you for writing this, I really enjoyed reading it! I have just begun my career in Japan…A lot of the things you have said have given me hope since and my soon-to-be wife and are thinking of starting our own school. Thanks again and best of luck!’

‘Loving this so far. I can definitely relate to the convenience store story. My list of establishments I stay away from through sheer embarrassment gets longer every year…’

‘Fantastic stuff. It’s like reading my life from a slightly skewed perspective. Enjoyed every minute of this and you really should publish it as ‘proper’ book or ebook.’

‘Dude, this is some funny stuff. Well done!’

‘You write really well. It’s been a pleasure reading this book!’

‘Loved this story. Very inspiring.’

‘Thank you very much for writing this. It was entertaining, insightful and has given me much food for thought concerning my own career. I was happy to read a positive perspective on the eikaiwa industry…’

‘Really enjoyed the book. Laughed out loud a lot. I think many foreigners in Japan have shared similar experiences but very few have put them together so well on paper/pc. You’re a much better writer than you think you are. Well done!’

‘This was such a great blog, I was reading some of the chapters during my sports law lecture and laughter kept escaping me, I couldn’t hold it in, I was getting some really strange looks so I had to stop reading!’

‘It’s so well-written and really resonates with me as someone who’s been here a while, is in his 30′s and is going bald working at an eikaiwa.’

‘I read your hilarious book about being an eikiawa lifer, bravo! What a great read. Like the others I too found myself laughing audibly and frequently. Great comedic sensibility and timing. Reminded me a bit of David Sedaris’ short story novellas in that way. Thoroughly enjoyed it… kudos on your eminently readable book. You’re a talented raconteur.’

‘…you are a terrific writer. I am not sure if it was your goal, but some of your scenarios had me heartily laughing.’

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Too poor to fall in love

Well now, I don’t often write anything political but this week something has got me a tad wound up. It was this story on the BBC website about a couple having to leave the UK because the wife’s income was apparently not enough to support her child and foreign-born husband. Fuck off, losers, the government seemed to be saying.

There may be immigration problems in the UK or there may not but whatever you think, if there are problems they are not likely to be caused by spouses of nationals who come here to be with the person they happened to fall in love with. Surely those people are comparatively few and hardly crippling the benefits system. If you think there is a problem, you are more likely to be complaining about EU immigrants – you know those pesky Eastern Europeans and such who are apparently ‘flooding’ Britain with the sole intention of stealing our benefits and jobs.

But that’s the thing, David Cameron and such can’t legally do anything at all about that. They don’t have that power. They can’t stop people from those countries coming as long as Britain remains part of the EU, and that makes it quite hard to look like they are being tough on immigration. So they pick on who they can. They pick on people who have fallen in love with non-EU nationals and happen not to be rich. Those people don’t even have to be claiming benefits. They are just deemed not to earn enough. And they are ‘immigrants’ which to many has become a nasty word.

Now, fine, the UK has every right to make its own rules about immigration, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if other countries followed its lead and if, say, Japan made equivalent rules. There would then be couples I know who would not be welcomed here and who would not be welcomed there. Couples, in fact, who would be deemed to poor to fall in love.

I am ever so glad Japan’s immigration policies are kinder to those who love their citizens. I can’t help but feel that Jarvis was right, though.

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Voluntary Cleaning Activities

Every so often, by means of a small noticeboard that passes around the houses in our neighbourhood, we are informed that we must get up at an unseemly hour on a Sunday morning and go and clean a local park. It is a voluntary activity; the kind of voluntary activity that sees you becoming the subject of unkind neighbourly gossip if you don’t attend. Thus it was that at 7:55 this morning I found myself in possession of a mild hangover and a large broom. I wandered across the road to do a bit of sweeping.

It wasn’t hard work. Not really. The park was perfectly clean already and our only duty, indeed the only thing we could actually find to do at all was to sweep up the fallen leaves, bag them and stick them over at the rubbish collection point. This took about fifteen minutes. But then the Japanese guilt kicked in and nobody wanted to be the first to say, ‘Right, that’s me done. I’m off back to bed.’ This year’s head of the community was still pointlessly pushing a broom over a leafless gravelly surface and it seemed everybody thought they would look a bit lazy if they left so soon. I was amongst them. I recognised the futility of continuing to sweep. I saw no benefit in moving small stones and dust in one direction and then back again, but I also felt I might be labelled the lazy foreigner if I was the first to leave. So we carried on for fifteen minutes more. We swept and shared glances, wondering who would be the first to crack. Finally, the head of the community gave one last mighty sweep, mopped his brow and said, ‘OK. That seems to be it.’

We thanked each other for our efforts and trundled home. I walked with old Mr. Yamamoto and Mrs. Ikeda. ‘Mr. Suzuki must be very hardworking,’ said Mr. Yamamoto. ‘Yes,’ agreed Mrs. Ikeda. ’He always seems too busy to come to cleaning events.’

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