Results for tag "teaching-english-in-japan"

Travel Videos from Around the Web

The following are some of my favorite travel-inspired video clips.   I’m sorry they’re so small! I have no idea how to make them bigger… Enjoy.  : )

The English Teachers Series

This is the first episode in a series that centers around English teachers in Japan.

I love the Neville character. He reminds me a lot of someone I used to work with in Tokyo who belonged to this weird, cult-like sect of Buddhism and who would spend part of each of class teaching his students karate moves.

You can visit the show’s website for future episodes or for character sketches and a plot synopsis.  I can’t wait to see where they go with this.

Where the Hell is Matt?

Matt was once just another unemployed backpacker in SE Asia until one day…Well, I’ll let him tell you.

Here’s an exert from the ‘About Matt’ page on his blog,  Where The Hell is Matt?

“A few months into his trip, a travel buddy gave Matt an idea. They were standing around taking pictures in Hanoi, and his friend said “Hey, why don’t you stand over there and do that dance. I’ll record it.” He was referring to a particular dance Matt does. It’s actually the only dance Matt does. He does it badly. Anyway, this turned out to be a very good idea.

A couple years later, someone found the video online and passed it to someone else, who passed it to someone else, and so on. Now Matt is quasi-famous as “That guy who dances on the internet. No, not that guy. The other one. No, not him either. I’ll send you the link. It’s funny.”

The response to the first video brought Matt to the attention of the nice people at Stride gum. They asked Matt if he’d be interested in taking another trip around the world to make a new video. Matt asked if they’d be paying for it. They said yes. Matt thought this sounded like another very good idea.”

Pretty awesome story, huh?

“Life on a Cruise Ship” – A Rap

You probably won’t appreciate this video if you haven’t worked for a cruise line before.  But if you’re interested in giving ship-life a shot, this will give you a good idea of how small the crew cabins are and what it looks like below deck.

A Comedian Jokes about the Hazards of Air Travel

You can tell this video is pre-911 because he jokes about an era when there were still curtains separating coach from first class and there was still free in-flight food services.

Prague’s Kafka International Named Most Alienating Airport

Favorite line from a customer service agent:   “If there is a problem, fill out complaint form and put it in an envelope addressed to the hospital…in which you were born.”

One-Year-Old Snow-Boarder

Okay, so this one doesn’t have much to do with travel, other than it relates the theory that the way to raise brave, risk-taking children is to start ’em while they’re young.

Dating When You’re A Broad: It Ain’t Easy!

A Couple in the Dark by Carlo Nicora

I don’t write about my dating life on this blog much (or at all, really).  When you write about your life on the Internet, you gotta draw the line somewhere and I guess that line for me is discussing details of Relationships Past, Present or Future.  I think it’s important to respect people’s privacy, which is why I don’t write about my friends or family much either (other than the occasional, casual mention).  That, and most people I know aren’t as comfortable sharing their lives with faceless strangers from the Internet.

Fair enough.  Sometimes I’m not even sure I’m comfortable with it, especially when I’m applying for jobs and some of my most personal thoughts and feelings are only a Google-search away from a prospective employer’s eyes.  It’s an odd feeling to walk into a job interview and wonder if the manager seated before you has read about that time you set off the fire alarm in the shower or the time James Franco almost fell in love with you. It’s situations like that that make me wonder if I’d be better off blogging anonymously.

Especially when I get concerned phone calls from my parents that begin with:  “I read your blog today…about how you got into a fight with the photocopy machine again….” And end with:  “Reannon, are you sure you’re okay?”

Recently I broke my vow of silence though and submitted a piece to Vagabondish about how tough it was being single in Tokyo.  I actually wrote the piece over a year ago, while I was still living in Japan and submitted it to a few Japan-based magazines and webzines and was told (and I quote) “We get pitched this idea too often.”  While it was reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one who found the dating prospects in Japan to be well, limited to say the least, it was also perplexing.  If there were other women writing about how they had trouble finding a date in Tokyo, why wasn’t anyone publishing anything about it?

Well, if you were like I was a year ago, a single girl in Japan suffering through both Valentine’s Day (and the equally offensive White Day) with only your boyfriend pillow for company, well you can rest assured that at least there were – and still are – others suffering along side you.

Like one of my favorite bloggers, Sarah Marchildon of The Hollywood North Report, for example.  She writes about her dating pitfalls in Japan far better than I ever could (they’re equal parts hilarious and depressing) and provides details that I’d be far too embarrassed to have splashed on the Internet.  I’m grateful that she had the courage to include them.  My favorite posts of hers were Man Hunt and Man Hunt: Part II.

And then there’s my article:  No Sex in the City:  What it’s like to be Female and Foreign in Japan.

It’s ironic that some of the qualities that make it possible for western women to move to a foreign country by themselves to begin with (their strength and independence, for instance) are the same qualities that damn them to lives of celibacy once they get there.  My male friends have claimed that I’m stereotyping men everywhere with this theory, so you’ll have to let me know what you think.  But it’s my opinion that the reason women have trouble dating (locals and foreigners alike) while abroad is that men (in general) are intimidated and threatened by women who are independent and emotionally strong enough to pack up and ship off half way across the world alone.

I could be wrong (and I seriously hope I am, because being right would mean that I’m never going to find a boyfriend ever again) but this article about which sports men find sexiest, certainly suggests that I could be onto something.  According to a poll of 6,000 people, which was conducted by Sam Murphy and Richard Wiseman (a fitness expert and a professor from the UK), men ranked aerobics, pilates, ‘going to the gym’ and running as the sexiest female sports.  Women, on the other hand, found rock-climbing to be the physical activity they found most attractive on men (an activity that unlike ‘going to the gym’ is an actual sport).  Professor Wiseman’s theory for the difference in gender-preferences was this:

“Women’s choices appear to reflect the type of psychological qualities that they find attractive – such as bravery and a willingness to take on challenges – whilst men are more shallow, looking for a woman who is physically fit but not challenging their ego by being overly strong.”

So brave men who read this blog, what do you think?  Do you find women who live (or have lived) abroad ‘challenging to your ego’ or is this all a bunch of feminist BS?

Are Japanese and American Children Really all that Different?

I spent all of last week shuttling back and forth between my old job teaching (mostly North American) pre-schoolers at an International school, and my new job, teaching ESL at a Japanese after school preschool program. The whole experience was exhausting (imagine working for nine hours straight, all of your students under the age of six) but the experience got me thinking.

Are Japanese and American three-year-olds really all that different?

My Japanese boss believes that answer is a definite ‘no’. She believes all children are basically the same, especially at the preschool age.

My ESL teacher friends have all sounded in with a resounding “Hell yes”. As more than one friend put it “Japanese kids are really, really weird.”

Here are some of my observations from the last few days.

Five Differences Between Japanese and American Children

* Japanese children tend to ‘shut-down’ when they’re upset. I’ve noticed that if a Japanese child is either angry, sad, bored or just doesn’t want to do something, he or she will give you this blank, expressionless ‘poker face’ look (that is, if they look at you at all). They won’t acknowledge they’ve heard you and won’t even respond when you tap them on the shoulder or say their name. It’s perplexing because you’re left try to surmise why it is they’re upset, (or if that’s even the case). I used to think that it was because they couldn’t articulate their feelings in English, but I’ve watched them do the same thing with the Japanese staff. The Japanese teachers will usually try to joke around in order to coax a smile out of them, or else cuddle them and heap lots of praise and encouragement.
My reaction is to assume it’s an attention seeking behavior and ignore it, but maybe I’m wrong?


American children do this too and might say things like: “I’m not talking to you!” and then go sit in the corner and pointedly ignore you, but it usually doesn’t last more than a minute or two. I find with American children, it’s fairly easy to discern what they’re feeling, mostly because they won’t hesitate in telling you. Or it’ll be written all over their expressive little faces. But then, perhaps someone not familiar with American children wouldn’t say that it’s easy.


* Japanese kids are used to being ‘man-handled’. I’ve observed this happening a lot, especially when mother’s drop their children off at school. If the child is in a bad mood and doesn’t want to go, he won’t say a word but will instead, just sit on the floor and refuse to budge. No screaming. No crying. No tears. Just the silent treatment and the ‘poker face’. It’s uncomfortable to watch, because the mom (embarrassed), will whisper and speak softly in the child’s ear, pleading and trying to gently pull him into a standing position, but to no avail. After about five minutes, she’ll pick him up and carry / drag / yank / pull / push the motionless child into the room. He’ll then silently walk back out of the classroom and drop like a dead weight onto the hallway floor and the whole process will start all over again.

When teaching, I’ve found that I can quite easily maneuver a child around by gently pushing him or her in the direction I want her to go. Or if I want a misbehaving child to sit, I can simply pick them up and place them in a chair. This isn’t true with American children. If you try to coax a child into a line by pulling them by the hand, for example, he or she will likely shout: “I can do it by myself!”

* Japanese children are fiercely competitive…from a very young age! They seek adults approval and are perfectionists. They won’t offer an answer to a question unless they are sure that it’s the correct one. This makes games hard to play at times, because the children are hesitant to just ‘take a wild guess’, which is often necessary for a game to work properly. It’s interesting because even though they’re competitive, it’s usually only with themselves. Every time we play a game and a child is struggling with an answer, another student (even someone from the opposing team, will whisper the answer in the child’s ear. It’s sweet and adorable but I’ve got to wonder: Why? Does it have to do with the whole group culture orientation, (“I help you, you help me”?) Or is it that they can’t stand to see one of their classmates uncomfortable or embarrassed?

American children, on the other hand, have no problem volunteering an answer, and won’t hesitate to shout out an answer, oftentimes when the teacher hasn’t even asked for one. For the most part, they’re a lot more uninhibited and more willing to take risks. I guess that can be attributed to the American educational concept that “there are no wrong answers”. They also have an ‘every man for himself’ attitude towards games and will be quick to shout out “Hey, he cheated!” or “That’s not fair! You helped him!”

* Japanese children need ‘genki’teachers! It’s funny, because when I first started working at the international school, one of my boss’s criticisms was that I was ‘too energetic’. “Speaking in a loud, overly-excited voice, just adds to the chaos and will make the children more rowdy and disruptive. Speak in a normal, quiet, soft tone of voice and they will calm down and listen to you.” This is more or less what I was told, and it really worked. At the Japanese school, however, my boss told me that I need to be more ‘genki’ (excited, energetic and expressive). At first, I balked at the idea. I follow the philosophy that if you plan an interesting, fun lesson, you shouldn’t have to work hard to encourage the children to participate. They’ll naturally want to join in because it’s fun. But I think that because Japanese children are quieter and more timid than American or Western children, they need an energetic teacher to ‘show’ them how to have fun.

* Japanese children love silly, physical humor! That’s another reason why the ‘Genki teacher’ thing seems to go over well. Children love it when the teacher ‘accidentally’ trips over a chair or messes up the words to a song. One of the best teaching tricks to use with Japanese children, is to intentionally get an answer wrong and have them correct you. They never seem to grow tired of this and will gleefully shout out: “Noooo! That’s wrong!” ‘High Fives’, sound effects, funny drawings on the board…these all go over amazingly well in the Japanese classroom.

American children aren’t so quick to buy into it, however. If a teacher ‘accidentally’ dropped his flashcards in front of a class of pre-school American students, for example, they’d more than likely roll their eyes in annoyance.

My boss pointed out that perhaps a lot of my observations have less to do with the fact that my students are Japanese and more to do with the fact that they’re non-native English speakers and in an ESL setting.

What do you think?

Would You Date One of Your Students?

Every unmarried female ESL teacher who’s under 50 and teachers adults has been asked out by a student at least once. It’s inevitable.

It’s always awkward when this happens because due to the cultural and language barriers you’re never entirely sure how to interpret it.

Does “Do you want to go out for a drink with me?” mean…?

A. I want you to be my token (insert name of English speaking country) friend

B. I want to practice my English but don’t have the money for private lessons

C. I want to date you, you hot thing you

D. All of the above

I’ve always assumed that other teachers thought as I did, that it was unprofessional (adult students or not) to see a student outside of class, even if just on a ‘just friends’ basis.

But then I moved to Japanland, a country where “ESL class” appears to be synonymous with “Match-making Service” because I’ve met quite a few ESL teachers who’ve dated a student. One of my friends even married one!

And the same goes for Japanese language teachers as well.

Last week, during one of my Japanese lessons, the other student in my class casually asked my Japanese teacher out.

The dude had been heavily coming on to her, touching her hand and inquiring as to whether she was married or had a boyfriend. At one point, he even winked at her. But it still came as a surprise when he (in the middle of the class!) asked her to ‘go out to dinner’ with him. I just stared down at my text book in uncomfortable silence, feeling embarrassed for them both and wondering how’d she go about turning him down gently.

But then she smiled and gave him this wide-eyed look and said yes! I about fell off my chair.

Is it really that easy? Is this the latest in dating trends and I’ve been missing out?

It’ll be interesting to see what transpires. Next thing I know, they’ll probably be married and pregnant and I’ll have to find a new teacher.

ESL Teaching Tips: How to Discipline Problem Students

Teaching English in Japan is a challenge. I think that one of the greatest hurdles to overcome as a new teacher here, is coming to terms with the fact that English class isn’t about learning English. If it were, teaching would be lot easier.

English class is first and foremost about having fun. It’s viewed by many parents as a sort of extracurricular activity, akin to gymnastics or soccer. And to some, it’s viewed as a babysitting service. But it’s not typically viewed as an opportunity to gain a language skill. And therein lies the problem.

English classes in Japan are just too much fun. Children don’t know how to react; it’s confusing. They don’t have the ability to see it in a classroom, teacher/student context because it’s unlike any classroom experience they’ve ever had. And that, in my opinion, is the reason why so many students are unruly and frequently misbehave.

Imagine for a moment, that you are a Japanese three- year-old on the first day of English class. And upon taking that first hesitant step into the classroom, you discover that your teacher is a green-skinned, one-eyed alien. This alien jumps around singing and dancing, shouting in a harsh-sounding animal language and gesturing wildly. Then she tries to get you to do the same. Understandably, you balk at the idea. Just who is this crazy person?

Eigo no sensei. That’s who.

So from that perspective, it’s easy to understand why an ESL teacher would have to work very hard to gain any sort of respect or authority in the classroom. Especially when the majority of the lesson is centered around getting the children keyed up and excited to sing and play. Of course they’re going to act out. They’re going to test the teacher. They’re just kids, after all.

But there are some discipline techniques I’ve found to alleviate some of the behavior problems…and some I’ve found that didn’t. And I thought I’d share both of them with you, being that when I’ve google-searched this topic in the past (as it specifically related to Japanese children), I’ve rendered very few results. And much of the advice on the web isn’t practical for the ESL classroom or can’t be applied to Japanese children, (who are prone to be far more sensitive to criticism than children of other cultures).

If you do try them out, let me know how they worked!

The Do’s and Don’ts of Discipline in the ESL Classroom:

Don’t expect teacher’s aids to help you!

It’s nice when they do, but I wouldn’t depend on it. From my experience, many of them are young, inexperienced and incredibly hesitant and unsure of themselves when it comes to disciplining students. I once saw a child pants a Japanese teacher, (in front of the entire class) and she did nothing but scold him in a soft, non-threatening, barely audible voice. Plus, I think they hesitate in coming to your rescue, because they believe that they would be encroaching on your territory and undermining your authority. Remember, you’re the boss while you’re in front of the class teaching, even if you only teach those children from ten minutes per week.

Don’t expect the parents to help you!

I’ve written extensively about this, which you can read about here and here and here While some parents will step in and help if they see their child misbehaving, most won’t. Parents have watched as their child slapped me across the face…and they did nothing. The sooner you can accept the reality of this, the better off you’ll be. But don’t be afraid to discipline them, even if the parents are in the room! The parents want to see that you can control the classroom, and they want you make sure their kid stays in line. They see that as part of your responsibility as a teacher.

Don’t be embarrassed to yell!

I normally wouldn’t recommend yelling at your students, but I think that in an ESL classroom where Japanese isn’t allowed to be spoken, it’s often necessary to get your point across. You can’t exactly say: ” Now Koichi, how do you think your classmate feels when you hit him?” to a Japanese three year old. But you can get down to his eye level, look him right in the eyes and say in a stern, loud voice: “NO!”

Don’t use the “teacher look!”

You know the look. One raised eyebrow. A pointed stare. Pursed lips. Yeah, that doesn’t work in Japan. They don’t know that the ‘evil eye’ means “Uh-oh I better stop my naughty behavior before the teacher gets mad!” So don’t use it. They’ll most likely stare at you in bewilderment.

Don’t go silent in hopes that they’ll stop talking!

I’ve stopped the class in the past and stared at the students pointedly, hoping that they’d get the message and stop talking. But it never worked. They just continued talking, oblivious. The whole thing actually backfired on me when parents complained to my boss that I couldn’t control the class! I guess that technique isn’t used in Japan.

Don’t take it personally when they hit you!

This one took me a long time to get over. My kindergarten and pre-school students never failed to run up and whack me. Hard. Usually on my behind. I’d get so insulted. So indignant. Like, excuse me but I’m not Mickey Mouse! But I guess to them, I am. They like to hit the funny-looking foreigner to test my reaction but also to get a laugh out of their friends.

Instead…Teach them the High Five! Kids hit you mostly because they’re so excited to see you, they just can’t contain themselves. They don’t know how to tell you using words, so they hit. I taught them all “high five!” and now when they see me on the playground, they run up and yell ‘high five!’ and we slap hands, instead of them slapping some inappropriate body part of mine. For my older students (five year olds), I teach them different variations on the high five. Google them. There are a ton.

What to do when they hit: (a side note)
Don’t let them get away with it! Ever! They need to learn straight away that foreigners are not punching bags! I don’t get angry, I usually just make a big show of looking hurt. I over-react, as in “Ouch!!!! That really, really hurt!” That usually embarrasses them out of doing it again.

Do Make a List of Class Rules! Make the list short, (I limit mine to three 1.Listen to the teacher, 2. No hitting, 3. Speak English). I know that saying ‘no hitting’ presents the rule in a negative form, but the more positive ‘use your words instead of your hands’ is a harder point to get across to low-level ESL students. I use these three rules because they’re visually easy to demonstrate (act out the physical act of hitting, point to your ear to imply listening, etc.) but ultimately I don’t think it matters what the rules are. The point of setting rules is to establish your authority as a teacher. Review them every class for your first few weeks of teaching, especially if you have a particularly rowdy class.

Start each Lesson with Teaching and Reviewing Commands!
In my afternoon classes, I’m often alone with groups of up to 10 four-year-olds. When I first started teaching, the students would often run out of the classroom and I’d be left chasing them down the hallway hollering “Stop!” (which they didn’t understand) or banging on the bathroom stall door, (where they’d locked themselves) pleading with them to “please open the door”. After that, I realized that it was vital that I make sure they can understand basic commands and can articulate necessary requests, for safety reasons more than anything else.

So I made lists of important, useful phrases and would spend entire classes drilling them into their memories. I’d have each child take turns roll playing and reciting the phrase. Then I would test them at the beginning of each class, (pantomiming drinking water, for example, in order to elicit “water please”). Some example phrases were “Toilet please”, “Water please”, “Sit down”, “Ouch!” “Stop”, “Don’t touch”, “Don’t do that!” “Don’t move”, “Be careful”, “Listen!” “Open/Close” “Where is your….(book? pencil? bag?)” Etc.

I found that, more than anything else, this helped in establishing my authority. It provided rules and order and much needed safety.

Do get the Parents Involved! If the parents sit in during your lesson, get them involved! Give them flashcards to hold. Have them join in on the dances and songs. This shows the child that you (the teacher), have an authority over their mommy or daddy and that mommy and daddy listen and respect you. I actually don’t do this very often…but I’ve heard from other teachers who do it all the time, and swear by it! The few times I’ve tried in the past to get the mom’s to participate in the Old McDonald song for example, (which involves snorting like a pig and clucking and flapping your arms like a chicken), they usually turned beat red and sort of froze up. I felt so bad for them that I didn’t ask them to do it again.

The Point System! This is an old standby…and it works. Assign a number of points to each student (write them next to their name on the board). Every time they misbehave, erase a point. I usually do this with the “no Japanese rule”, so that anytime I hear Japanese, I erase a point. This usually greatly decreases the number of fights and disagreements for the simple reason that they don’t have the language ability to insult one another in English.

Three Strikes and You’re Out!
The ‘x’ next to a child’s name works especially well in Japan because the ‘x’ symbol is the nation-wide symbol for ‘no’ or ‘don’t’. So it’s a great visual. The rule is, is that if a student gets three ‘x’s’ next to his name, I have them sit out of the next game. But it’s only ever gotten that far once or twice. Usually, one ‘x’ next to their name is all it takes to get them to behave.

The Bomb

My supervisor taught me this one. Draw a bomb on the side of the board with a really long wick. After reviewing the class rules, demonstrate what will happen each time a rule is broken (erase a bit of the wick). When the bomb explodes (draw it exploding) show them your best ‘mean teacher face!’ Try not to make it look comical…practice in front of the mirror at home.
Note: The above tips are just my opinion and based solely on my limited time teaching in Japan. So take all of the advice above with a grain of salt! I recognize that some of these techniques might be seen as negative reinforcement, and therefore, not an ideal way to discipline misbehaving students.

From my experience though, sometimes negative reinforcement is the only thing that works! I know that shaming and scolding methods are used in the Japanese school system and I’ve seen cram school teachers hit their students (not hard, of course, but in order to get their attention). So while I don’t condone any of those methods, I think they show how a sort ‘tough love’ approach is often expected of teachers here.

She’s a Super Freak

'A Not Unsual Tokyo Subway Scene' by Aurelio.Asian.

Two months ago, a mentally-unstable man that I met on the train in Saitama, took one look at me and announced in a loud, prophetic voice: “You are too young to be in Japan.”

Once I got over the shock of being addressed in this manner (in English!) I laughed it off, saying “Buddy, I’m a quarter of a century old!” And most days, that’s exactly how I feel; old and incredibly jaded.

But then there are other days (like today) where I feel like I’m just an insecure kid playing pretend at being this competent and capable adult. I feel like I’m at the emotional level of a 14-year -ld and that 14-ear-old is horrified at the thought that she alone is responsible for making so many important life choices.  Right now, she’s staring numbly at the the myriad of flight itineraries looming on the screen before her and saying, “You want me to do WHAT? Make a decision that could potentially ruin my life? Shouldn’t you be asking a grown-up this? Why don’t you just call the guidance counselor?”

Japan seems to have a funny way of bringing that painfully self-conscious, frightened teenager out in me.

I think it’s because I feel like I’m being judged here for not conforming and for not being perfect, or even close to it. There are just so many unspoken rules. Don’t eat while walking, don’t put on makeup on the train, don’t speak what’s on your mind, don’t jaywalk, (even when it’s 3am and there isn’t a car in sight).

Everything must be done the correct way, the proper way, “the Japanese Way”. There’s a proper way to write, a proper way to hold your chopsticks, a proper way sip tea and stand in line. There’s a proper way to clean, eat, cook, arrange flowers, take a bath and even walk.

It’s like high school all over again. If your behavior doesn’t fit in with what “all the cool kids doing” you’re an ostracized freak of nature. And sometimes I feel like the biggest freak of them all.

I’m especially conscious of this fact when I’m running late to work, which happens, like, every day. I’ll be tearing down the sidewalk towards the train station, bumping into people and bicycles and construction workers as they all travel in neatly ordered rows, like giant schools of fish, all completely in sync. Then I’ll reach the station, a sweaty, disheveled mess, only to find that I’ve once again misplaced my train pass. So I’ll dump out the contents of my bag onto the ground in front of the turnstile and bouncy balls, pieces of chalk, 50 dollars worth of coins and tiny animal magnets will scatter everywhere. People will slow down to watch as I frantically search for that tiny plastic card and I’ll feel the magnitude of their negative, critical thoughts which radiate off of them, like, “Ha. What’s that girl doing? What a Frrrreeeeaaak.”

Then I’ll get on the train and I’ll get these side-long glances. Quick, yet assessing. And I’ll do an appearance check: How do I look from a Japanese person’s perspective? And I’ll notice the mis-matched socks, the white-out and glue stains on my black pants, and the scuffed shoes with the holes in the souls which are taped up with masking tape.

And then I’ll look around at the other women, dressed in perfectly pressed designer label suits with faces made-up like runway models, and every exquisitely highlighted strand of hair neatly styled into place. And I’m reminded once again of just how much I don’t belong here.

My friends insist that this is all in my head. That if people do look at me, it’s only out of a passing curiosity. They aren’t critiquing or criticizing me. While they’re probably right, this feeling of self-consciousness, of not measuring up to their standards, is a hard one shake. Especially when most days I feel like a mildly-retarded illiterate with a permanent seat on the “short bus”.

Take today, for example. I got into a dramatic, drawn-out, hysterical cat fight with a photo-copy machine. It stubornly refused to cut me any slack for not being able to read kanji. So I cursed it out, pushing all of it’s buttons until it completely shut down and refused to talk to me.

I felt guilty afterwards so I tried to reach some sort of mutual compromise. I brought out my
kanji book and spent the next hour peering over the little screen and carefully counting each of the microscopic, intersecting lines that made up each Chinese character. I then patiently scanned the index of my kanji book, searching for something that even slightly resembled one of the scribble-scrabble hieroglyphics on the screen, but had no such luck.

I cried, cursing the evil bastards who decided to make the copy machine gaijin-proof and the Chinese person responsible for bringing his impossibly difficult written language to this island in the first place.

Later, the owner of the cram school gave me the polite, Japanese version of “What the Hell did you do to my copy machine?” And like a 14-year- old caught cutting gym class, I mumbled, red-faced: “Um. Well. You see…There were a bunch of buttons…and the Kanji…Well.”

As I type this, I’m sitting in my icebox of an apartment, shivering in a coat, gloves, ski hat and scarf, because I can’t figure out how to work the heater. My roommate has gone AWOL and I’ve tried to google the kanji character for ‘heat’, ‘heater’ and ‘hot’ but can’t find anything that matches the symbols on the remote.
I explained some of these frustrations to my mom the other day over the phone. “Reannon, why do you continually do this to yourself?” was her exasperated response. “Why do you have to make your life so hard?”
Hmm…good question. I have no idea. I just consulted the 14-year-old on that but she just rolled her eyes and said that my mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Teacher Barbie

I tend to treat my private lessons with my Japanese teacher like therapy sessions. I’ll tell her about how one of my students is abusing me. I’ll show her the bite marks and the bruises and share horror stories involving chalk dust thrown in my eyes and markers hurled at my head.

And then I’ll tell her about the mothers and my how my hatred for them borders on an irrational, unhealthy obsession.

You see, these mother’s and I are at war.It’s total full blown psychological warfare. For their part, they loudly chat through my lessons to the point where I can’t hear myself speak, or they laugh when their little darlings kick me in the shins. Or they’ll stare at me with unnerving intensity, like I’m their childhood Barbie come to life, as I warble out the Old McDonald Song, pig snorts and all. I’ll in turn curse them out in my head and complain about them to anyone who will listen and bitch about them in this blog.

These mind games are exhausting though and it’s a losing battle.Yesterday I found myself wishing I could call a truce. I wish I had a magical remote control where I could just press a button and have everything I said be instantaneously dubbed in Japanese.Because if only we spoke the same language, I would sit them all down on the floor and over tea, have a group therapy session. A little heart-to-heart. And this is what I would tell them:

“I respect your desire to raise your children as if they are feral dogs instead of human beings and I admire your remarkable ability to stay calm while your children hit and scream and break the copy machine in a fit of rage. However, your children belong in a zoo and not in a classroom and I would appreciate it if you would keep them in a cage at home from now. Domo arigato gozaimasu.”

Okay, scratch that. I’d probably say something to the effect of:

“I don’t mind that you are sitting in my lesson. Even though your child is ten years old and is perfectly capable of spending an hour out of your sight, I don’t mind. Really. But please refrain from translating everything I say into Japanese. I know that you want to show off to the other mothers that you can understand English, but well, actually you don’t. You often translate things incorrectly and it just makes my job harder. Plus your child doesn’t need a translator. He’s smart. Give him 20 seconds and he’ll figure out why I’m handing him an eraser and pantomiming erasing the board.Trust me.”

My God, how I would have loved to shout all of this at them yesterday.Magical remote control or not, it would have felt so good.

But of course, I didn’t. I smiled, I bowed. I said nothing. As soon as the class was over, I stomped off to the vending machine, grabbed a hot can of overly- sweetened crap coffee and marched up the hill to the forest behind the school. Then I yelled at and repeatedly kicked a bamboo tree until the sole of shoe ripped open.

I’m not normally an angry person.I don’t know why these mother’s continually get under my skin and I’ve tried talking to the owner of the school about it. She was sympathetic but said that she couldn’t talk to the mothers because that would be rude and wasn’t the Japanese Way. The Japanese Way is, apparently, to send a vaguely worded letter about the benefits of discipline in child-rearing.

My Japanese tutor says mothers like these are unfortunately becoming rather common place in Japan. They even have a term for it, “Monster Mothers.” Apparently, these Monster Mother’s have seen how children in the West live happy, carefree childhoods and want to create that for their own children. They know that school, the childrens’ future careers and the pressures from the strict and rigid Japanese society will eventually beat some discipline into them. So in the meantime, they let them have as much fun as possible while they still can. They have a point. I’ve noticed that Japanese children undergo a personality transformation around seven or eight years old. They go from wild and out of control hellions to sullen, soft-spoken, timid sheep. It’s sad.

But even though I can sympathize with these mothers’ situations, their behavior and the fact that I’m helpless to do anything about it makes me want to tear my hair out in frustration.

I’ve asked other ESL teachers for some words of wisdom. They all have similar complaints. But the best advice they could give me was to “not to care so much” and hit the bar a lot after work.


Here’s What Teacher Barbie Looks Like on the Weekends…

No Japanese! English Only Please…

The mother’s of my students aren’t very friendly towards me. I don’t mean that in a negative “they hate me” way. It’s just a fact. Except for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ they don’t talk to me and I don’t blame them. Like most language schools in Japan, the company I work for has an ‘English Only’ policy (“No Japanese!”), which also applies to parent-teacher interactions. This means that as an English teacher I have to pretend that I don’t understand Japanese. The idea is that by creating this “English World” facade in the classroom, the students will be forced to use English to get their ideas across, instead of relying on Japanese. And it works for the most part.


But sometimes it can be a problem. Like when my students insult me in Japanese. They mostly do it to get a laugh from the other children, but I also think they do it in order to test me and it leaves me confused as to what to do. Do I feign ignorance and continue the lesson as they snicker at the ‘stupid teacher’? Or do I drop the facade and scold the student? What I do in most of my classes is assign points to all of the students and then if I hear Japanese spoken, regardless of the circumstance, I erase a point. My students are so competitive that this usually keeps the Japanese (insults and all) to a minimum.


I think where this “English Only’ rule creates most of the problems is in my interactions (or lack there of) with the parents. It’s taken me a while to figure this out. At first I didn’t know what to make of the parent’s cold behavior and awkward silences around me. I tried being friendly, smiling warmly and attempting small talk through hand gestures, but I think that just made them even more uncomfortable. Some of them looked downright frightened that I was talking to them at all. It made me uncomfortable to make them so uncomfortable, so I stopped trying to engage them. Now I just ignore them for the most part, which isn’t ideal but what else am I supposed to do?


Everyone says that the Japanese are “just shy”, but I don’t agree. Japanese people aren’t shy. They’re just reserved…and very, very polite. The more of the language I learn, the more I realize how true this is. In each social situation, there is a pre-established code of behavior firmly in place. There are set polite phrases that must be said when conversing with a teacher for example, and this takes all of the guess work out of the situation. People aren’t forced to think on the spot. There’s no pressure or anxiety. A conversation that’s been pre-written has no surprises.


But all of those rules, rituals and order go out the window when speaking with a foreigner who’s not familiar with them. Especially when speaking in English. It’s kind of like showing up to a chess tournament only to find the game’s been changed to Checkers. It’s nerve-wracking and unpredictable; two things that these Japanese parents seem to dread most.


At least, this is the conclusion that I’ve come to. Perhaps these mother’s would like to talk to me, only don’t know how. Even if they understand English, perhaps they’re just afraid I’ll say something they won’t know how to respond to. I think they find me and my foreign-ness intimidating. Why else would they scurry out of the classroom the minute my lesson’s over with only a mumbled goodbye?


I’d like to speak Japanese with them…but most of the time their children are standing nearby so I don’t get the opportunity to do so. The few times I have though, have yielded pleasant results. The mother’s were shocked that I could speak Japanese (even my limited, broken Japanese) and they happily chatted away with me. Although I didn’t understand much of what they said, it was like I’d broken down some sort of barrier that had been put up.


So I don’t really know what to do. I wish I understood the Japanese perspective a bit better or that they’d feel comfortable enough with me to explain it. It’s very difficult to put yourself on public display each day, standing in front of a room full of students and parents…and have no clue as to what they are thinking. They put up this mask and hide behind this wall of politeness which makes it impossible to discern whether they are happy with my lessons or secretly hate me. It’s unnerving.

Are Japanese Children "Just Shy" Or Is It Something Else?

Some of my students don’t talk. At all.

At first I thought they were just extremely shy and I tried to be patient with them. I figured they only needed a little time to warm up to me. So each week, I’d spend the 50-minute class having a conversation with myself as my five junior high school students stared at their notebooks in a meditative silence.

Our ‘conversations’ would go something like this:

Me: Soooo, what are your hobbies?


Me: What do you like to do for fun?


Me: Do you like to read? (mime reading a book). Do you like to play basketball? (mime playing basketball).


After a month or two of these conversations, I grew bored. And tired. And more than a little irritated.

Me: Do you like to play basketball? Yes or No.


Me: Yes? No? Someone. Anyone.


Me: Do. you. like. to. play. basketball? Please say yes or no.


Now it’s six months later and they still aren’t talking. Although I must admit, there’s been a little improvement. Now if I ask a yes or no question, one of my 15-year-old students has started to move his head in a way that vaguely resembles a nod. When he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll sort of slowly, very slightly tilt his head to the side. And if the answer is yes, he’ll tilt his head back and blink at me. I swear, that’s about the extent of it.

Can you imagine trying to conduct a class this way? And these are freakin conversation classes, too.

I tried to play hangman with them the other day, but they were too shy to even write down their guesses, let alone actually say anything out loud. I nearly lost it. I called on individual students and then just sat there staring at them expectantly.”Say a letter. Say ‘a’. Say ‘b’. Any letter. Say it. Please.”

But then the seconds drew out to minutes while the class sat watching a spider crawl up the wall, their faces completely blank…and I knew that I wasn’t going to break them. So I went back to doing grammar exercises from the text book.

Then, yesterday, it all sort of came to a head. One of my six-year-old students had thrown rocks at me while I was trying to get a coffee out of the vending machine. So I was already feeling disrespected and mistreated when I walked into the classroom, and in about as cheerful of a voice I could muster, asked the students: How are you?

Simple question. Simple answer. Fine, good, ok, so-so…anything would have been acceptable. Instead I got room full of poker face stares and all my determination to “just be patient” went out the window.

“You need to answer me when I ask you a question!” I bellowed.” If you don’t understand, you tell me. But you don’t just sit there and stare at the ground. It’s rude!”

Then, to drive the point home, I cruelly imitated them by sitting slumped over in my chair. I know, it was horribly mean, unprofessional and a wee bit on the dramatic side.

I just want so badly for my classes to be fun. If not for them, then for me.

But now I’m thinking that I was interpreting their silences all wrong. Because they aren’t shy. At least not outside of the classroom. I’ve spied on them while they’re waiting out in the hallway.They loudly gossip and name-call and rough house and make quite a collective racket. They engage in all of the activities shy kids would be too embarrassed to do. But then, one step into the classroom, and it’s like the volume switch has been turned off and it’s the same movie, but in silence. It’s like these loud teenagers are suddenly withdrawn, sullen robots. It’s totally bizarre.

So if it’s not shyness, then what is it?

Maybe it’s that they are extreme perfectionists. They would rather remain quiet then speak and risk saying something wrong. If so, then where is this enormous pressure to be perfect coming from? The school? Their parents?

Or maybe it’s that they are secretly really angry and resentful at their parents for making them take English lessons. Maybe it’s just a matter of them not wanting to be there. Their silence is an act of rebellion. Let’s see how long it’ll take for the Eigo no Sensei to have another mental breakdown.

I guess the most important question: What do I do about it?

Note: I was a shy kid. So it’s not that I’m not empathetic…I am. I know how scary it can be to be called on to answer a question, especially when it’s in a language you don’t know very well. Even as an adult, it’s tough. I take Japanese classes and sometimes I feel like an idiot when I repeatedly make the same mistakes. It’s embarrassing.

But even at 14, no matter how nerve-racking it was, if a teacher called on me for an answer, I would respond. And it had nothing to do with wanting to show respect to the teacher. I supplied an answer because even if it was wrong, at least it was over quickly and the teacher would correct me and then move on. It was certainly better than offering no response at all. That would just mean that everyone would sit in an awkward silence and stare at me, waiting expectantly for me to say something.

So that’s why I’m having trouble understanding where they are coming from with this behavior. Are they hoping that if they stay quiet long enough, I’ll just quit talking to them? Do they behave the same way with their Japanese teachers?

Teaching English Is No Joke

Photo: Sad Clown Doll

Sometimes I feel like I don’t understand my role my as an English teacher in Japan. What exactly do parents expect from me? I thought my job was to depart knowledge. I speak English. I will therefore teach your children to do the same.

But now I’m beginning to think that I got it all wrong. My job is to entertain. I’m a funny looking foreigner. I will entertain your children with my funny foreign songs and games.

Most days I feel like a birthday party clown. I’m getting paid to make children laugh. At me. Only I don’t wear a painted face or a colorful wig; all I have is my freckled face and yellow curly hair. But that, apparently, is enough. I walk into a daycare center and babies burst into hysterical, frightened tears. Children frequently slap my butt while I’m writing on the board or pull on my hair while I’m reading a story. A couple of my three-year-old students get immense enjoyment out of playing with my feet. A few times a lesson, one of the aids will have to wrench a squirming toddler away from my toes, from where he’s busily outlining the shape of my toenails with his fingers.

I am a clown. And a babysitter. And a human tissue. (Yes, please wipe your boogers on me. I don’t mind at all. Thanks a bunch).

But most of all, I’m incredibly frustrated.

I spend an enormous amount of time and mental energy creating thoughtful, engaging lesson plans, only to have the parents sit in the back of the room and noisily talk through my entire lesson, or worse, laugh when their child is disruptive or disrespectful.

Oh, isn’t he just too cute? Throwing a cockroach at the teacher! Oh look, he’s hiding under the table now! How darling! Let’s sit and stare as the Sensei gets stuck under the table crawling after him.

At one school I teach at, in the middle of a field in a small town two hours outside of Tokyo (yes I commute that far) there are more parents in the room than there are students. The little one- roomed school house is usually packed with chatty moms who each week, unabashedly watch as their little devil spawn of a child repeatedly pushes the CD player off of the table, or rips up my flashcards or tries to tear the wiring out of the copy machine.

Yes, that has all happened.

I’ve tried positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement and a whole psychology book of techniques but nothing curbs the children’s bad behavior for long…and that’s because the mom’s can’t or just don’t want to help.

On some level, I get it. I do. In Japan, discipline is entirely the teacher’s responsibility. The parent will never step in and help, even if the child is horribly misbehaving, because that would be encroaching on the teacher’s territory.

I’ve had a child slap me. Hard. And the parent just sat there. At first, I was shocked. This inaction went against every stereotype of Japanese parents I’d had before coming to Japan. I’d thought them to be rigid and strict. I couldn’t believe they would sit silently by as their child struck an adult. A teacher at that. Why didn’t they yell? Scold? Say something, anything? Did their silence mean they saw this as acceptable behavior?

Believe it or not, I’m okay with this. I don’t mind disciplining their children for them, although it can be tough disciplining three-year-olds in a language they don’t understand. But I’m up for the challenge. And believe me, it’s a challenge. Imagine yourself at the age of three. Would you have paid much heed to a clown yelling at you in gibberish? And I don’t really blame the children for treating me like a punching bag. They’re just curious. They’re testing me. To their four-year-old brains, I’m as foreign as a martian. I think a lot of their behavior is just experimental. I’m like an exotic pet. If I pinch her will it hurt her? Does she have a bellybutton like I do?

I know not to take it personally.

What I do take personally though, and what bothers me the most, is when the parents continually treat my lessons like it’s some big joke. A theatrical performance. It’s degrading. And insulting. If you don’t want to scold your child, fine. I will. But please, don’t stand in my way of doing so! Don’t they see that when they laugh at their child when he snaps my pencil in half or spits on my puppet that a part of me dies on the inside? I searched through several dollars stores, spent my own hard-earned money to buy that toy basketball that their devil-incarnate has just gleefully chucked out the window. And all the mom can do is giggle nervously?

As Nicole Ritchie once said: “I’m not an animal at the zoo.”

Yes, I’m worse. I’m an English teacher.