Monthly Archives: August 2014

Tales of the Fifth Grade

Most of the time I teach at a junior high. However, once a week I teach at one of two elementary schools. Here are some tales from my interactions with the fifth grade students. 

One day I began class in the usual format:

Me: Good morning, everyone!

Them: Good morning, Hope-sensei!

Me: How are you?

Them: I’m fine, thank you. And you?

Me: I’m fine too. Thank you.

From there I go around and ask more specifics about how they are doing:

Me: Who is hot? [kids raise their hands] Say, “I’m hot.”

Them: I’m hot

Me: Who is tired? [a few hands go up] Say, “I’m tired.” 

And so forth.

As usual I asked who was sick. No one raised their hands. But three kids were wearing the surgical masks so popular on this side of the world. “Oh,” I said, “you’re just paranoid. Say, ‘I’m paranoid!'” and one obliging kid at the back swung out his arms in imitation of me and yelled, “I’m paranoid!”

In fairness, there is a good reason for a lot of them to be paranoid. People still go to work and school when they are sick, and often masks are worn as a preventative measure. I have also been told I should wear masks in the spring to help with my pollen allergies. 

A couple weeks later the kids were learning, “I like…” and “I don’t like….” A page full of nouns was available for use in these sentences. Unfortunately, most of the options fall under the “I like…” category: baseball, swimming, strawberries, dogs, cats, etc. I’ve learned that the students are most likely to repeat after me if they agree with the sentence. Therefore, while I might get some students repeating me when I say, “I don’t like spiders” I’ll be hard pressed to get a response if I say, “I don’t like dogs.”

Therefore, I had to come up with a few extra examples. Preferably ones using English words they already knew. Suddenly, I had an idea, “I don’t like tobacco!” I called out. “Tobacco” is what many Japanese call cigarettes. The 5th graders agreed with this. “I don’t like tobacco!” they crowed. Every kid in the room had said the sentence in a loud voice. Might as well keep using that one. “I don’t like tobacco!” I called out more adamantly than before, if that’s even possible. “I don’t like tobacco!” they called out in unison. I looked at the teacher. “I don’t smoke,” he said. “Neither do I” I replied. So I repeated myself again: “I don’t like tobacco!” This was rapidly turning into a PSA, and I wished we had cameras in here. PBS would be proud. “I don’t like tobacco,” the students continued to holler. But I decided we had drummed that lesson in pretty well, and we moved on.

The following week I was at the other elementary school, teaching the same lesson. I tried the same “I don’t like tobacco” sentence, and the immediate response was three girls pointing at the teacher. “Oh, I smoke,” he said. Yes, I can smell that you do. The students were willing to repeat after me, but they also kept pointing to the teacher. 

I should say here that quite a few Japanese smoke. Mostly men, but also some women. The idea that it is bad for them hasn’t been drummed into the Japanese as thoroughly as it has been drummed into Americans. It’s also still publicly allowed over here. Having lived in Chicago during the years prior to Japan, I almost forgot that people still smoked. None of my friends did, and no smoking was allowed in restaurants or within 30 feet of most buildings. Here those policies don’t exist. One restaurant in particular I’ve learned to always wear mostly dirty clothes to, for even if I sit in the non-smoking section, I will reek when I leave. 

Which brings me to another story: about a month ago some friends and I went swimming at a nearby lake. We took the train there, and on the way back I began to smell cigarette smoke.  Trains are non-smoking, so my friend suggested that someone had been smoking on the platform and at the last stop the stench had wafted in. But the smell wasn’t diminishing. I went off to investigate. As I navigated the length of the car, trying to look casual, I saw that up ahead of me four men sat with their heads together. They were whispering in a way that indicates they were talking about someone. Just before I got to them, I drew parallel to an old man sitting on a bench near the door. A lit cigarette was in his hand. I didn’t even pretend that this wasn’t exactly why I had come down here. Tilting my head, I gave him a look, shook my head, and turned around to go back to my seat. The guilty look on his face said it all. And, no, I’m not above exerting social pressure. I’m pretty sure that is what the four men were whispering about too. 

Back to the fifth graders: Later I had them go around and each say something they like, then each say something they don’t like. The likes were pretty normal: baseball, strawberries, sushi, etc.

The dislike category is where it really got creative:

“I don’t like zombies.”

“I don’t like ghosts.”

“I don’t like diets” (said a slightly pudgy kid)

“I don’t like my brother,” said a sassy girl at the back. Alright then. 

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Experiencing Illiteracy

I am naturally drawn to challenges, an attitude which helps when living in a culture different than the one in which I was raised. Sometimes it is a game to figure out what the person is saying or what the ingredients in this food are. Making the world into a fun game is one of the best attitudes an ex-pat can adapt, so I try to keep it my baseline.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t see the flip side. Sometimes I wish I just knew what was going on! That desire is what keeps me studying the language. The more I study, the more I understand. The frustration, therefore, is healthy too.

Meanwhile, I learn empathy. As I struggled through an alphabet completely unlike the ABCs that English, German, and Spanish had shared, as I hesitantly sounded out syllables and hoped both that I could actually remember the correct sound as well as that I would win this real world game of Mad Gabs, I began to empathize with adults who can’t read, or who struggle to read. I’ve gotten really good at guessing, but sometimes I make mistakes, and when those mistakes bite me, I think of people who can’t read in ANY language. 

In the grocery store I’ve begun to realize how much I rely on the colors, fonts, and pictures of packaging. This is what the sugar looks like:

Making a point 005

This is the part that tells me it is sugar:

Making a point 006

And this is the thing I actually look at:

Making a point 007

Here is the flour I buy:

Making a point 008

These words indicate that it is flour:

Making a point 009

but all I’m looking at are the yellow flowers and red and white pictures. 

Not having those familiar sights can cause minor panic. A couple of months ago I needed to buy more toilet paper. I headed to the same drug store I always purchase it at and bee lined towards the paper goods aisle. I found the section and looked around. Here was the toilet paper, but where was the packaging with the red flowers? I’d calculated it was the cheapest stuff. Where was it? WHERE WAS IT? I thought about hunting down an employee and hysterically asking them, “Where are the red flowers?” which is about as much relevant Japanese as I could muster, and it still wouldn’t be enough. I took a breath, looked around, and bought different toilet paper. I don’t know if the brand went out of business or just changed their look, but in that moment I thought of the refugees who live in my area of Chicago and how much updated looks on products probably affect them. 

None of this sounds normal. And I get that. I don’t think I can ever adequately explain it to most of my friends. I entered a club when I moved over here, a club of people who know what it is like to be confused in the grocery store, who know what it is like to cling to a brand because it is all they have energy to decipher, and who know just a piece of what it is like to be illiterate. 


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