Tag Archives: kids classes

ALL YOUR MEMORIES ARE AS PRECIOUS AS GOLD

In February of this year, I was visiting my friends Mika & Koji in Chiba, which is about an hour and a half away east of Tokyo. The traditional Japanese way is for the family unit to remain very tight throughout the lifespan; it’s common for newly married couples to live with one set of parents for a good while, and for their respective families to spend a lot of time together as a unit. So, when I visit them, I also visit their parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and in-laws. It’s always a delight. They’re all such open, honest, loving people.

I was thinking to myself, why don’t I come here more often? Mika telepathically understood this, and suggested we start an informal English class for her two school-age nieces and their friends. Great idea, I said. The class would be held every Friday, but I would only teach every second week because it would be a bit expensive paying my costs all the time. And so it was, from March up until last Friday when we held our final class & party.

Now, the job I worked in until June was fine, but it was for a big corporation and that makes it harder to connect with students. I met a lot of really wonderful people there, and did forge some pretty good connections, but apart from rare cases I was always the ‘Teacher’ and they were always the ‘student’. These pre-defined roles were hard to get around for both them and I, so we didn’t put as much effort into actually genuinely caring as we could’ve. (Be warned, mashed , mushy bananas ahead.)

This Friday class (or classes, as we had two groups of six children), however, has been the highlight of my fortnight for just this reason. The kids were all brilliant (and impossibly cute), I was ‘Barnaby-sensei’ but as much their mate as their teacher, and Mika was a wonderful person to teach with and just generally be around. When it came to that farewell deal last week, I was really sad that it was ending. These kids, these people, really meant something to me and I would miss them. Still, it was rowdy fun like it always is – plenty of laughter and a good amount of craziness.

Most of their parents had turned up to see how I’d indoctrinated their precious little ones. Each one of the children stood up and did their little self-presentation, something they’d studied for pretty hard by the sounds, and they all nailed it as though it was second nature. Mika said they’d struggled the week before. Not this time. I couldn’t stop grinning, they did so well. Then we set up a table with food and drinks – typically unhealthy kids’ party fare, That’ll do would probably keel over at the sight of it – and Mika’s sister came over to us and gave us both a bag, saying ‘arigatou’.

We’d been doing it for our own pleasure (and, let’s be honest, a bit of money in my case), but gifts? Well, thank you, OK. Inside were the items I will treasure for my entire life: a t-shirt with all the kids’ hands stretched out into a circle, and a huge card with a photo of each class and a handwritten message from each child (in Japanese). “Thank you for teaching me English.” “It was a lot of fun.” “Please come to Japan and teach us again.” “You’re always cheerful.” I sat there for about five minutes looking at the pictures and their messages, and had a quiet moment of reflection: if this is where your life has led you, this point here, this feeling, then you are doing something right and everything has been worth it. This soon-to-end time in Japan (more on that soon) has been challenging in many ways, and I’ve done my fair share of bitching about the place to friends and family and basically anyone who’ll listen, but even if there was nothing else to be pleased about – which there is in spades – I’d have this, and it would all be worthwhile.

Then I realized I was being rude not talking to anyone, and played some games with the kids who had long since finished stuffing their faces with crisps and were tearing about like… well, like kids. One girl from the younger class came running up to me, hugged my legs tightly, looked up at me with a huge smile on her face and said, “Daisuki!” (“I love you.”) Usually I’d laugh such declarations of affection from children as either attention-seeking or just being playful, but at the age she was, I could see she was pure in the moment and genuinely meant it. There’s a wonderful lack of pretence about Japanese children up to the age of about 8 or 9, before they’re aware of themselves and how badly they need to be exactly the same as everybody else their age, immediately. They just do and say what they feel. Needless to say, I was touched.

When it was all over, I went and had sushi with the family, and played loads with M & K’s nephew who was too young to join the class. At the end of the day I made the long(ish) trip home, tired and very happy. Mika sent me a text saying she thought we’d had a good experience. I sent her back a slightly overdone essay about it being my best memory of Japan and a group of people I’ll never forget. Not unlike this, I suppose.

Thank you, everybody.

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SAY IT’S A GAME AND I’LL COME TO NO HARM

Most of the time, I try as hard as possible to block advertising out of my brain. It’s dull and ever more aggravating. It’s always the same. Then I see something I haven’t seen before, and I think ‘wow! That deserves my attention!’ But after I’ve seen it about ten times, it’s exactly the same as everything else. With the exception of the Freshup ad.

For the first three weeks of being here, I was constantly in that ‘wow’ phase. On billboards, trains, massive TV screens – seemingly everywhere – I could see advertising images I had never seen before, and it was like being in a foreign country, as Ian Rush might say. It struck me that perhaps wherever I go, I will experience this initial fascination with advertising. Like, it’s so pervasive everywhere in the industrialized/developed world, and the products are so different everywhere, that it’ll always be the first thing I notice.

Now, I’ve stopped staring intrigued at DoCoMo posters on the train. I’ve almost reached the same stage I was at back home, an attitude of ignorance to the extent possible. It probably helps that it’s mostly in written language I don’t understand (with a few exceptions, like http://www.jti.co.jp’s intriguing campaign), but I get the feeling it would be the same in America or the UK or anywhere else. Advertising’s really, really interesting until you realise it’s the same thing as everywhere else you’ve been: companies selling things.

My kids classes went well this week. I prepared the shit out of them, so that when we got in there I knew what I was going to do, when I was going to do it, plus I set stronger rules and reward schemes so they didn’t run about the place. We played a lot of Spiderman, which is exactly the same as Hangman except with a spider instead of a person – more politically correct, I s’pose. Images of a crudely drawn stick figure being hung by the neck from a decidedly unsound structure never perturbed me as a child, but hey, I’m just following the book. Needless to say, the adults classes went fine, and people have actually started signing up for my lessons because I am teaching them. Apparently. This is what staff members have told me, anyway – it could just be a confidence-boosting thing. Whatever, I’ll take it.

After my last kids class on Wednesday, I was looking out the window, and I got my best smog indicator yet. Back in NZ, if you look directly at the sun for longer than half a second, you’ll destroy your eyes. (I did this often as a child, actually: I would stare at it until it went a kind of shimmery blue colour which wouldn’t get out of my vision for about two minutes. True story, and probably the reason for my rapidly diminishing quality of eyesight.) Here, the sun appears to be smaller and more orange in colour, filtered as it is through thick clouds of smog that hang over the city. I reckon you could get away with two or three seconds of staring at it before it burnt out your vision. It probably also means I might finally be able to get a tan and not just go bright red within five minutes of taking my shirt off. That’d be nice.

Finally, I went back to Shinjuku on Friday and had dinner on the 29th floor of the NS building, looking out over the night skyline with the Park Hyatt in the foreground. Unfortunately I forgot my camera, but you can trust me when I say it was quite stunning. The food wasn’t bad, either. I’ll have to go back and take some pictures.

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DANGER STRIKES, THE IDIOT SLIPS

I’ve finished my first week of teaching. All together now: ready? THANK CHRIST THAT’S OVER. No, hang on, it wasn’t really that difficult – the basic adult lessons are a cinch, and make up about 90% of my schedule, so most of the time I’m not all that bothered. I turn up, tell a story and field some questions to get them thinking in English, go through what’s in the book, then just keep them talking until the lesson’s over. My students have pretty much all been friendly and eager to talk, which makes my job a whole lot easier.

There’s that other 10%, though: kids classes. I’ve hung out with kids before, and I used to bloody be one, so I thought I could control five at a time and actually help them speak in another language. Not to be. To employ an overused but no less appropriate phrase: they ran amok. I didn’t prepare enough, I didn’t set ground rules, and I didn’t get into a confident frame of mind, thus ensued a clusterfuck. Hopefully next week it’ll be like one of those stupid substitute teacher movies where, with everything having gone wrong on the first day, teacher goes home and undergoes a training montage – cut to the next day, and teacher waits in the classroom, ready to face those bastard kids… then they run roughshod over them once more. Except I’ll win in the end, and everyone will love me.

After that somewhat traumatic kids class, I was further humbled as I failed to observe an important Japanese custom: wearing footwear in the appropriate places. I don’t want this whole thing to turn into a discussion of things everybody already says about Japan (They work ridiculously hard! They sleep on the train, but always wake up in time for their stop! They have tiny feet! Etc.), but on this point I’ll concede bafflement. Why couldn’t I remain in socks as I escorted the kids and their parents down to the lobby? With some of the looks and comments I received upon stepping onto carpet without first entering my lace-ups, you’d swear I’d just been instructing those kids in the finer arts of bomb-making and shooting pornographic films, not English. I made a similar mistake at home in walking out the front door with shoes in hand and putting them on outside, rather than slipping into them at the genkan and lacing them up before facing the world. It’s just something I’ll have to get used to, I guess.

I’ll also have to get used to being spoken to in Japanese. On Friday I went to the hopelessly bland local government office to apply for my Alien Registration Card, or gaijin card as they are commonly known, and for the national health insurance. Nobody spoke passable English, so we baby-stepped through all the forms until they seemed to be saying everything was finished. Something will be delivered to my house around the 15th of July, and then I have to go to a bank or convenience store and do something… but I didn’t understand what. Fortunately, I live with other teachers who have both been here for over a year, so I’m not exactly adrift at sea – just mining this experience for content.

That building, though – probably the dullest, most depressing working environment I can imagine. The floor tiles, these tiny little off-white rectangles, were horribly ugly and obnoxious; even the paintings on the wall (presumably there for decoration) were nothing more than a slathering of brown with some words carved into them. It must have been a metaphor for the bureaucracy surrounding it: there’s some meaning here, but you’ll have to stand here looking for hours before you find any part of it. Naturally, I put my headphones in, put on Justice’s excellent and incredibly vibrant new album, and waited my turn.

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