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.