I used to teach at a local kindergarten one day a week. They expected me to sing songs and although it wasn’t something I was ever comfortable with, after several months my embarrassment lessened considerably with familiarity. My wipers on the bus going swish swish swish were accompanied by slightly more pronounced gestures and I told myself that I was simply helping kids have a fun time and fostering an interest in the world outside Japan. It was either that or think about how I was an overweight bald man singing songs with pre-schoolers. Oh fuck off! It’s not funny.
My comfort levels went shooting back down when, one morning, my boss at the English school which dispatched me to the lessons popped her head into my classroom and asked if she could have a word about the show.
‘The show?’ I asked.
‘Yes. The kindergarten show,’ said my boss, and then she went on a very long-winded ramble in which, between far too many prepositions and not nearly enough verbs, I was able to pick out my name and the words, ‘English show’ and ‘funny performance’. She finished with, ‘So can you please tell me your idea?’
‘I’m not sure I understand,’ I said. ‘Are the kindergarten students putting on a show? Is that what you are telling me?’ And my boss looked at me as though I had just asked her whether her tits were real, and said, ‘Of course! The show is always in December!’
‘Sorry, nobody told me,’ I said and, with considerable dread, asked, ‘What am I supposed to do?’
Through more painstaking circumlocution, I discovered that every year the kindergarten put on an end-of-year show for the parents and that part of that show was a short skit or a play in English. Apparently, previous teachers had performed Japanese folk-tales in English, or played the guitar whilst the children sang. Naturally, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic at the prospect.
‘Mrs Fujiwara,’ I said, ‘I’ve only actually had about seven lessons with these children and have about five more before the performance. All they can say is a few colours and animals and “My name is Yuki.”’
She looked at me with an air of some confusion and said, ‘Yuki?’
‘Yes, Yuki,’ I said, ‘Or Haruka or whatever.’ And Mrs Fujiwara, with increased puzzlement, said, ‘Haruka?’
‘Look, it doesn’t really matter about the names,’ I said. ‘The point is that they are not going to be able to perform a play in English in five weeks. I mean, it’s asking a bit much. Have they only just told us about this?’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Fujiwara, ‘before you began the classes.’
I was getting a bit pissed off. ‘Before I took the classes?’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Fujiwara. ‘You didn’t know?’
‘How could I know?’ I said. ‘Nobody told me!’
And she said ‘Really?’ as if utterly astonished by this fact, adding, ‘But the show is always in December. We know that ones.’
‘You know that ones,’ I said. ‘I had no idea!’
And she said, ‘Really?’ again and I almost tore my socks off and rammed them down her throat.
Mrs Fujiwara genuinely seemed to think any confusion was my fault and that I should have known about the show because it is always in December. It didn’t matter that I had never ever been there in any previous Decembers.
‘We must present your idea tomorrow to Encho-sensei. Maybe just some songs is okay. Can you sing with the children?’
‘On stage?’ I said. ‘At the show?’ and struggled not to say, ‘But then I’ll look like a paedophile!’
‘Of course,’ said Mrs Fujiwara and then she said that Encho-sensei wanted to introduce me to the parents, whatever that meant!
I told her I was a hopeless singer and wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it, but just then her husband came in and laughed and said that it didn’t matter, that he was sure I must be very good in English songs and that singing a song would be very happy for everyone. I just wanted to get out of the meeting to think of a good excuse so I said I would need to think about it and would talk to them later.
Whilst I was thinking, they went ahead and confirmed that I was willing to do the show and that I had agreed to sing three songs on stage with the children, that I would give a short self-introduction in Japanese and that I would do some sort of conversation with the students. A bloody conversation! How in the name of Christ I was supposed to have a conversation with one hundred five-year-olds on stage in front of a large audience and with said children speaking in a foreign language, I had no idea!
‘They can’t have a conversation!’ I said. ‘They are five years old!’ And Mr Fujiwara said, ‘Maybe some are six.’
‘Five, six whatever…’
‘Very short is okay,’ he said.
I said, ‘Well apart from holding up a picture of a monkey and asking, “What’s this?”, and having the children reply, “It’s a monkey,” I don’t see what kind of conversation we can have. It wouldn’t be very entertaining though.’
Then things became very odd indeed and I got quite lost. Mrs Fujiwara had begun laughing and said with some excitement, ‘Yes, yes! Maybe a picture of a monkey with a funny face is good!’ and then quite bizarrely she went on to suggest that we could make a long pencil and hold that up. She was laughing again as she said, ‘Very long! You can hold a very long pencil and ask the children “What’s this?”’ Mr. Fujiwara joined in with her laughter and I realised that I hadn’t the faintest of notions as to what was going on. I thought that maybe they had just gone mental! More so when Mrs Fujiwara’s giggles increased and she suggested, ‘Or maybe a picture of a big ice cream,’ and here she needed to pause for a bit more chortling and recapturing of breath before adding, ‘but the ice cream is…is… melting!’
To this day I have no idea what they were on about, but eventually the performance did go ahead, with me, but thankfully without long pencils or melting ice creams. It was still unspeakably cringeworthy, though. Sometimes when I’m about to go to sleep and I’m lying there without a care in the world the memory devil creeps up and slips images of that performance into my brain and it brings on the sweats and cripples me with shame!
I felt the performance was awful, but it’s hard to know what the audience thought. I think the Japanese are a little more forgiving than the British when confronted with an absolute tool of a fellow humiliating himself in public. I mean, it would probably be less embarrassing to be the Japanese Jeffrey from Rainbow than it would be to be the English one.
I came onto the stage with the children, and although I had been told that it was in a theatre of sorts, it was much bigger than I had been led to believe. There were parents and grandparents and staff and probably close to a thousand people there to witness my humiliation. My boss had kindly written out a Japanese self-introduction for me, which I thought I had memorized. But after I had said my name I froze and couldn’t remember what to say next. All I knew was that lots of flashbulbs were going off and I could see people with video-cameras zooming in with glee at this tall foreign guy with nothing to say. A noticeable ripple of laughter went through the auditorium as I rather unprofessionally pulled out a crumpled cheat sheet from my back pocket and told people in poorly accented Japanese that I was from Britain, and, somewhat redundantly, that I didn’t yet speak much Japanese. At least nobody threw anything at me.
The first of the three songs was a number by the name of Where’s Mr. Thumb? With so many children on stage singing their blessed little hearts out, I could get away with miming the words, but unfortunately the song also had accompanying actions. Oh good Lord, I’m going crimson again just writing this.
I felt like such a prick that I actually turned my back to the audience. The children were behind me so I turned to face them, and I kind of pretended that it was necessary in order for me to lead the children. Inside I was reminding myself that Jim Morrison of The Doors used to sing with his back to the crowd in his earliest performances. But he wasn’t usually making finger puppets out of his thumbs and, if I’m honest, I don’t think many of the audience saw the parallels.
We moved on to the conversation part of the show. I held up a big picture of a dog and asked the children, ‘What’s this?’ and they replied in unison, ‘It’s a dog!’ Then I held up a picture of a snake, and asked, ‘What’s this?’ and they said, ‘It’s a snake!’ It must have been fascinating! But there was more, for next I held up a monkey – not with a particularly funny face, but a monkey nevertheless – and once more I asked, ‘What’s this?’ When the boys and girls dutifully replied that it was a monkey. I asked, ‘Do you like monkeys?’ and they all shouted out, ‘Yes, I do!’ One hundred of them, monkey lovers the lot!
From there I had to segue smoothly into the next song, which was Five Little Monkeys. I faced the audience this time, but again I lip-synced, and then once more in the final song, We Wish You A Merry Christmas. After that, I had to perform my endlessly-rehearsed spontaneous surprise reaction at being presented with a bouquet of flowers by one of the little girls, and finally I could leave the stage. As I was thanked I was given a rousing round of applause. I should have been pleased, but all I could think was, ‘You sarcastic bastards!’