Monday, February 8, 2010

It's a kinder magic

There are times in this job when I really feel like someone, possibly JET, is contriving stressful situations for me as some kind of elaborate test. The first time I felt this way was a few months ago, when my nose started spontaneously trickling blood while I was chilling in my local onsen. As soon as I realised, I made a sharp exit from the bath – you must be clean before you enter the water, so bleeding your filthy gaijin blood into the communal pool is surely not cricket. As I was trying to stop the bleeding in the shower area (which wasn't easy, given that the only tools available were water and my own naked body) a nude old man was intent on asking me, in Japanese, all sorts of questions about my life.

If that was my cultural adjustment test, then today would have been my teaching one. For no discernible reason, I slept terribly last night, so I was hoping for a fairly easy ride today. At about 10am I was hanging out in the staff room during a free period. A call comes in from the board of education, asking where I am. Shit, I thought, have I forgotten some appointment? I couldn't remember being told anything special was on today. I was told that I should get my ass over to city hall immediately. Due to language problems, I couldn't really get a straight answer as to what this was all about, and I started to concoct all kinds of terrible scenarios in my head, like it was some meeting to tell me that my request to stay another year had been denied. Finally I figured out that this had something to do with kindergarten.

As I was ushered out of the building and into my car, I was thinking: if they are expecting me to take a kindergarten class with no preparation then I'm just going to politely but firmly say no. But as I drove to city hall, almost despite myself I began planning out what I could do with a room full of preschoolers given no materials and no prep time. By the time I got there I'd pulled three or four activities out of my mental bag.

Sure enough, when I met my supervisor he told me that back in May, i.e. three months before my arrival in Japan, my services had been booked for today by the kindergarten. No-one had thought to mention this to me. The kids were waiting for me, could I do it? I took a brief moment to compose myself, like Nick Cage listening to Lowrider in Gone in 60 seconds, and then accepted the gig.

I was thrown pretty much directly into the fray, and hit them with the classic Head, shoulders, knees and toes, before moving on to doing the Macarena while counting, and then scraped the barrel a bit with two back-to-back games of London bridge is falling down. Then a second class came along and I did it all over again. Then it was time to have lunch with the kids, so I sat down with my chopsticks at a comically small table. On a regular day I have lunch with 12-15 year olds, and while they are sometimes curious to ask me questions, quite often we'll just eat in silence. But there was no question of the kindergarten kids showing the same reserve. They fired questions at me in Japanese, their immature minds apparently not grasping the fact that I couldn't speak their language. Between the teacher knowing a little English and me knowing a little Japanese (actually, more of the latter, which was quite encouraging) I managed to field most of their queries.

They asked what the number after 'ten' is; clearly they have been taught to count to ten in English and no further. They received 'eleven' with the kind of amazement other people would reserve for an eleventh commandment, a ninth legitimate planet, or a sixth Girls Aloud album. They asked what my favourite colour is, and when I said blue, clamoured to show me any blue object they could find.

I found it particularly endearing that they had not yet learned that it's rude to stare at people who look different. They would just gaze at me, open mouthed, while the more adventurous among them would run up and touch me. One kid asked what colour my eyes were, and when I said green, everyone wanted to take a good long look at my non-brown eyes (which cause me not to use chopsticks very well, according to government drug advisors).

Perhaps my lessons had been a bit ramshackle, but I left feeling pretty pleased that I'd prevailed in such challenging conditions. I suspect my efforts won't have gone unnoticed by the board of education folks either. As I arrived back at my school, I got a not inconsiderable further morale boost from the fact that No Doubt's Don't speak was playing over the PA. I shall explain why.

Thursday and Friday last week the Japanese teacher of English was off work due to a bereavement, so I was required to give a few solo lessons. Teaching the textbook is bit beyond me, because it's tough to explain grammar without using any Japanese. So I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted. I pulled out my old Don't speak activity for the most able class. (That song really is a bit fast, I think I might use RHCP's Under the bridge in future – I reckon the drug references are oblique enough to get away with.) As I understand it, the lunchtime music is selected by the 'broadcast club', a group of students that might be something like the Brit-confusing American concept of 'AV club'. (Incidentally, AV means 'adult video' in Japan.) So, extrapolating a little, I'm assuming one of my class is in broadcast club, and was sufficiently taken with my choice of mid-90s pop-punk that he made the effort to acquire the track and play it over lunch. I was touched.

Update: my supervisor just showed up at my door bearing a six-pack of high-quality beer. It seems he appreciated that he had dropped the ball, and was grateful for me rolling with it and thereby kind of saving his arse. Job's a good 'un!