I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

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June 24, 2003

At first, I was only telling my students my bowling average and high score if they asked about it. These days, I figure, fuck it, who cares if they ask? I'll tell them anyway.

I had a tough roster of students today: mostly teenage girls, and a man-to-man lesson in the evening with Fortress Genyuu, a genial middle-aged man with virtually no language skills who retains next to nothing from lesson to lesson and, despite having a good sense of humor about it, looks like he could beat anyone in Japan's ass and may be thinking about doing so after the lesson. I had him draw a floor-plan of his house the other day in a group lesson, but I had no idea what to do with him in a man-to-man lesson, especially seeing as how I'd already told him about my bowling average the day before. (It turned out okay: this time, we had a spirited discussion about days of the week and things you find in kitchens.) It's the teenage girls who really put you through the wringer, though:


ERINA: "I am tired! I am so worried! Soon I am taking entrance examinations. Very hard! I will go to foreign language university so I can realize my dream."
TEACHER: "That's a very good phrase! What is your dream?"
ERINA: "I must learn many languages! I will learn Chinese and French. I want to become a teacher abroad. I will teach to the poor people how to speak English, in the poor countries. But I have to know the language of the poor people! So I must know very many languages, because I do not know which one is the right one for them!"
TEACHER: "Well, that's a very nice dream."
ERINA: "Thank you!"


ERINA: "Miki! What is your dream?"
MIKI: "My dream?"
ERINA: "Yes! To realize your dream!"
MIKI: "I don't know."
ERINA: "You have no dream?!"
MIKI: "Dream?"
TEACHER: "A dream can be like a big plan for the future, something you want very much."
MIKI: "I want to get married."
ERINA: "Ohh! Yuuske is my boyfriend! Do you think he is cute?" (Indicates pictures on notebook.)
TEACHER: "I'm not really qualified to say, Erina."
ERINA: "Miki, do you have a boyfriend?"
MIKI: "No." (Begins to blush quite severely.)
ERINA: "You don't?"
MIKI: "No."
ERINA: "Ohh!" (Looks pointedly at the teacher.)
TEACHER: "What?"

Hasty segue notwithstanding, I managed to teach a decent lesson about the subtleties of using "too (hot/cold/etc)" and "not (hot/cold/etc) enough".


ERI: "I used to be a dental assistant. Now I am a shop worker."
TEACHER: "Why did you quit your job as a dental assistant?"
ERI: "Too dirty!"

She has a point. I don't know how the bad-teeth stereotype got affixed to the English, because I have seen some profoundly fucked sets of teeth among the Japanese.

I should write a few words about our textbooks and teaching system. Students are divided up by level of ability: absolute beginners are 7C, followed by 7B, 7A, 6, 5, 4 and so on. Native fluency is level 2. (Who is level 1? Teachers? God? No one really makes it past 3, so I don't know if it has ever been answered.) There isn't much to do with 3's and 4's other that shoot the shit about baseball or whatever else they want to talk about. (I overheard another teacher leading some 4's in a discussion about ethnic cleansing the other day. Man, I stick to baseball.) With the other levels, you check their file to see what lessons they've had, and you try to find one that's open in common among all of the students (anywhere from 1-4 in each class), or one which they haven't done recently. (There are a ton of 7A students who've done every lesson three or more times but still aren't good enough to level up.) In practice, most teachers only have 5-10 lessons from each level that they're willing to do, but that works out fine, because students are randomly assigned to different teachers every time they come. So, you wind up with a fair amount of students that you've had before, but they've usually had other teachers since you last taught them. Each page of the students' texts has a story, a picture and some grammar point. You use that as a springboard to plan a lesson. There are some that I never get to use (the pseudo-Muhammad Ali one in 7A has always been taught before I get to it, as has level 6 #8, wherein you just have the students fill out a questionnaire about sleep and dreams, and then they chat about it when they're done), but there are a few that I've made my own, such as 7A #43 (how to complain about things), 7A #49 (little vs few, much vs many), 6 #12 (look, feel, taste, hear, smell), 6 #20 (comparative adverbs), so on and so forth. I do think the textbook was designed with the idea that students would be doing these lessons in order, but with the random assignment of teachers and classmates each time out, it's just not possible.

The textbooks are brilliantly outdated. They were written for Spanish ESL students a little over twenty years ago, and for some reason, this Japanese school bought reproduction rights to them. All teachers catch the frequent references to the Soviet Union right away (you get to compare its size to that of East Germany at one point), but there are many hidden delights to be found deeper within, such as the exercise where students are asked to compare the abilities of celebrities (Example: "OJ Simpson is a faster runner...") or the photograph from a record store where Bananarama, U2's "October" and the Police's "Synchronicity" are clearly visible on the new releases shelf. The students seem completely oblivious to it, fortunately, although a handful of the stories do feature characters explicitly informing each other that it's 1983. There's one story where a woman announces that she is going to leave a party because she's almost too drunk to drive, and everyone else harasses her, so she stays, has a few more drinks, and then leaves to drive home. That's just the background of the story, mind you - it doesn't end with a cautionary tale about drunk driving or anything, they just finish the party and leave, with the woman chastened for her party-pooping ways.

On a non-academic note, I found a pair of excellent Engrish t-shirts for 500 yen apiece at a sidewalk sale during my lunch hour. If I return to the United States without an unstoppable armada of bat-shit crazy t-shirts, I have failed. That is my position.

These dapper fellows can be found in one of the subways near my apartment. The train lines are all privatized, run by separate companies, so each has its own decor. Some vary from the norm more than others. Hankyu, my regular line, just has some panda-porn advertisements for tourism in Kobe. I work at a different school sometimes on Thursdays, though, and these guys are all over that train line: a solid forty or so at each subway station. To deny how awesome they are is sheer madness.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

Often discussed:

Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.


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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.