Tag Archives: teaching in Japan

Speaking Japanese like a Badass Vol.2

Are you running out of cool Japanese expressions that make you sound totally badass? Then it’s time to add to your verbal arsenal with another round of ‘Speaking Japanese Like a Badass’. Again, I’ll assume that you’ve already begun your linguistic journey with the barebones basics. At the very least, everybody who comes to Japan needs to know arigatō (もありがとう – thank you) and sumimasen (すみません – excuse me), and I’m going to assume you know basic grammar as well. Plus, you’ve obviously read the first ‘Speaking Japanese Like a Badass’, so I’ll try not to repeat myself.

Shōganai (仕様が無い) – “It can’t be helped”

When I first arrived in Japan, the trainers with my company taught this phrase to all new teachers on day one. (Perhaps I should have recognized that as a bad omen.) Literally meaning “there is no way”, shōganai (仕様が無い) is an infinitely useful phrase to express that something is inevitable, nothing can be done, or the situation can’t be helped. It is the ultimate expression of accepting an unpleasant reality, of reinforcing the status quo, of acknowledging one’s helpless to change anything. In many ways, it is the most Japanese expression of all.

And this expression can be used for all matter of no-win situations, from the very serious, to the very trivial. It’s raining today? Shōganai. We’re all going to die someday? Shōganai. Your job’s being transferred to another city? Shōganai. All your students failed their English exam? Well, nothing we can do about it now. Shōganai. The potential uses of this phrase go on and on and on.

Kankeinai (関係ない) – “That’s not it”

Sometimes in conversation a badass needs to express that the discussion has veered off topic, or simply that someone is focusing on the wrong thing. If you find yourself in that position, the dismissive phrase you’re looking for is kankeinai (関係ない). Literally meaning, “there’s no connection”, kankeinai is a succinct way to say, “that has nothing to do with it” or “that doesn’t matter”. Depending on its usage, this flexible phrase can be interpreted as “I don’t care about that” or “that doesn’t concern me”. Be careful not to overuse this phrase, lest you sound like a jerk.

Shinmai (新米) – “Novice”

When one first arrives in Japan, it goes without saying that there will be many things with which they are unfamiliar. For this reason, it’s good to be able to express when you are new to particular activity. To express your inexperience, use the word shinmai (新米). While the literal translation of shinmai is “new rice”, the term is used to mean “beginner, newcomer, novice”. The closest English equivalent would be calling someone “green” for their lack of experience in a specific field. Once you’re a hardened pro, you can use this term to single out newbies who have yet to reach your level of mastery.

Guchagucha (ぐちゃぐちゃ) – “Messy, Sloppy”

Japan is known for emphasizing cleanliness, organization, and order. So how does one express that something is not so neat and tidy? The answer is a fun little onomatopoeia, pronounced guchagucha (ぐちゃぐちゃ). This term means “messy, sloppy, untidy” and can refer to everything from a cluttered desk or mussed up hair, to muddy boots and paint-splattered overalls. For a non-native person living in Japan, this term becomes a necessity.

Manzoku (満足) – “Satisfaction, Sufficient”

It’s good to know when you’ve done very well, but sometimes it’s even more important to know you’ve merely done well enough. In these situations, it’s good to know the word manzoku (満足), meaning, “satisfactory” or “sufficient”. This term can be used to express deep satisfaction, like someone being contented with their life or satisfied in their work, to more mundane usage, like when you fill out required paperwork sufficiently. Manzoku ga iku (満足が行く) is the full phrase meaning “to be satisfied”, while manzokukan (満足感) refers to the feeling of satisfaction.

More Kotowaza (諺) for Badasses

Here are a few more Japanese proverbs. In case someone uses one of these idioms in conversation, or you find yourself in the opportune moment to use one yourself, these phrases will make you sound like a badass.

Ashita yaro bakayarō. (明日やろばかやろう。) This fun rhyming phrase means “doing it tomorrow makes you an idiot”. But a more fitting translation would be “procrastination is masturbation”.

Ashita ha ashita no kaze ga fuku. (明日は明日の風が吹く。) The opposite notion of the last phrase, this saying means, “tomorrow’s wind blows tomorrow”. This is a laidback way to express that tomorrow will take care of itself.

Asu no koto wo ieba oni ga warau. (明日の事を言えば鬼が笑う。) Keeping to phrases about tomorrow, this maxim literally means, “Talking about the future makes demons laugh”. I’ve seen this translated a bit dramatically as, “Nobody knows the morrow.”

Asu no hyaku yori kyō no gojū. (明日の百より今日の五十。) This phrase translates to “fifty today is better than a hundred tomorrow”. As the English equivalent goes, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, it is better to have a small but certain advantage now than the mere potential of a greater one later.

Hana yori dango (花より団子) – “Dumplings rather than flowers.” This is a saying for people who are more interested in the practical rather than the aesthetic. At least you can eat the dumplings.

Gojuppo hyappo (五十歩百歩) – “50 steps, 100 steps.” Much like the English phrase “six of one and a half dozen of the other”, this saying indicates a scant difference between two compared things.

Kyuukanbi (休肝日)– “Liver’s Day Off”

As I’m sure you are aware, Japan has a healthy love of drinking. Japan loves drinking so much, in fact, that whether it is healthy or not is up for debate. But it is from this drinking culture that we get a fun vocabulary word that everyone should have in their arsenal: kyuukanbi (休肝日). Kyuukanbi is a day where one abstains from alcohol, a term that literally means “liver rest day”. This word can be used anytime you would rather not drink, but you don’t want to give the impression that you never drink. Perhaps you really overdid the previous night and the thought of imbibing alcohol at present is distinctly unappealing, but you might be down for a beer tomorrow. In cases like this, just whip out kyuukanbi and everyone will be on the same page.

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Return to Shakotan

After a far too brief visit to Seattle, I returned to Bikuni by April 9th, 2012, ready to start my second year as Shakotan’s ALT. The moment I entered my apartment, I was struck with an eerie sense of déjà vu. Unlived in for two weeks or so, the apartment had grown just as cold as the sea air outside. In my absence, the normally omnipresent curry aroma has dissipated, giving way to the bland, nondescript fragrance of nothing in particular. Walking in and dropping my suitcase on the floor, I was overcome with the sense that my dwelling had reverted back to its original state, like I had somehow come back not just in space – but in time – to my first day here, one year ago. This was an unnerving sensation.

Perhaps I had more doubts about my decision to stay than I had originally thought. Perhaps being able to visit Seattle and briefly see the people I love was a good way to trigger intense homesickness. Perhaps my apartment in Shakotan is a fortress of solitude, an ever-lonely place. It’s likely that all of the above of are true. In any case, there I was; voluntarily starting another full year in a relatively isolated Hokkaido fishing village, with only my laptop and guitar as companions. Was this really the right decision? Is there ever a right decision? Perhaps all choices are half chance.

I was in for a new experience by carrying on here; I got to see my students progress through school. In my first year at Shakotan, I had taught at the junior high school and two elementary schools. At the junior high, this meant that my Second Year students had become Third Years, and my First Years were promoted to Second Year students. Perhaps the most interesting to see, the students that I had taught as 6th graders were now the new freshmen at the junior high. No longer dressed casually as elementary school kids, these young students were sporting their new junior high seifuku (制服), the military-esque school uniforms that look like sailor outfits. And apparently more formal dress lends itself to more serious studiousness, as these kids seemed to have matured considerably in the span of three weeks.

Despite the small size of the elementary schools in Shakotan, this year all four of them have at least one 5th grader. Since English instruction officially begins in fifth grade, this means that my time teaching in elementary schools has doubled. I now teach at Bikuni, Hizuka, Nozuka, and Yobetsu elementary schools. Those last two have only one 5th grade student – and only five students in the entire school – meaning that our classes are one-on-one. Actually, there is also a Japanese teacher present, so technically these students get two teachers completely to themselves. How’s that for small class sizes?

Nozuka Elementary School has five students, total.

Unfortunately for me, some of my favorite teachers had been transferred to other schools. Apparently it’s common practice to move teachers about the region, typically at least once every six years. I’m not sure what the purpose of this is, but it seems that an individual would have to be pretty one devoted to teaching to pursue a career as a semi-nomadic educator. At the junior high, the vice principal, school manager, social studies teacher, and second PE teacher had all been transferred. At Hizuka, the French-speaking Kazama-sensei and his wife, along with the principal and vice principal, had departed for greener pastures. And at Bikuni Elementary, the lineup remained largely the same, but the teachers had swapped positions, meaning that I was working with different teachers for the 5th and 6th grades than I had been previously.

The loss of Kazama-sensei was a bit of a downer for me, as we had had some memorable conversations in a comical mix of broken English, French, and Japanese. At the junior high, I had come to really enjoy the way Vice Principal Tanaka would teach me new phrases and Japanese puns, and I knew that I would miss his comic presence. I was also sure to miss the social studies teacher, Yoshimura-sensei. In fact, I missed the whole Yoshimura family. The Yoshimuras had welcomed me into their home for dinner on a couple separate occasions, the most notable time being when Marissa was visiting and they had invited us over for yakiniku. I always felt like Shingo and I were pretty good friends (although I never actually called him by his first name like that). And the two Yoshimura daughters were the brightest students in their respective classes, so their absence was quite noticeable.

And yet the effect that all of these personnel changes had on me really paled in comparison to the big shocker: Yamazaki-san was also being transferred! The news of Yamazaki’s two-year transfer to the main Hokkaido office in Sapporo hit me like a ton of bricks. In my first year in Shakotan, Yamazaki had become my closest, most trusted, most helpful friend in town. We had worked together at the education board’s office every week, and he was always there to support me when I needed help. It probably goes without saying, but I needed help quite often. He was my pillar, my rock, the wind beneath my wings, and honestly, the only person in town whom I felt that I could communicate with perfectly, despite the language barrier. He had helped me get set up in my apartment when I arrived, guided me through many adventures (local festivals, sports days, trips with his family), introduced me to interesting aspects of Japanese culture (onsen, baseball games, yakiniku, “nominiucation”, etc), and also enabled me to go on some adventures without him (like hiking Mt. Shakotan and Hashigozake). We had even traveled down to Kōchi together for Kami-shi’s local Yosakoi Sōran festival. In my second year in Shakotan, Yamazaki wasn’t going to be there, and I was certain to miss him most of all.

Solar eclipse

My frustration in the matter of Yamazaki’s transfer is admittedly self-serving, but the reasoning of why he was being temporarily moved was genuinely perplexing. At first it seemed like a promotion for him, getting a chance to work in the bigger pond of the Hokkaido office. But that fact that his transfer was temporary made it seem almost intentionally awkward. You see, both Yamazaki and his wife had been working in Shakotan’s town office. They have a nice little house in the village where they lived with their two children (one in junior high, one in elementary school) and Yamazaki’s mother. Shakotan is two hours away from Sapporo by car and not accessible by train. By moving his position to Sapporo temporarily, the powers that be had forced Yamazaki to rent an apartment in the city, live there throughout the work week, and only see his family on weekends; the only time it was feasible for him to make the drive home, or his family to make the trip there. The fact that the transfer was temporary and his wife still had her career in Shakotan makes moving the whole family to the big city completely impractical. So why do it?

Cherry blossoms on the hillside

Apparently this kind of intra-company transfer, called tenkin (転勤 – job relocation), is a very common practice in Japan. I’ve been told that the idea of shifting people around is to avoid workers in bureaucratic positions from getting too comfortable. This is quite literally in an effort to avoid corruption and cronyism in the workplace. Having the same people working together in the same office for too long might potentially lead to minor corruption, like folks breaking the rules to do favors for their friends, or more serious unethical behavior, like embezzling money. The idea that anybody would suspect Yamazaki of ever doing anything unethical strikes me as preposterous. Although, I suppose I do have a TV from the Shakotan town office in my apartment, which is technically a no-no… Man, I love that guy.

While the loss of Yamazaki was a blow, I’m still bound to enjoy teaching in Shakotan. After all, Yusuke, the junior high English teacher, is still here, and we make an exemplary excellent educational team. He does all the lesson plans, worksheets, tests, quizzes, and grading; is responsible for students’ performance, discipline, and classroom morale; and basically deals with all the stressful aspects of the job. While I handle a fun ten-minute game at the beginning of class, provide pronunciation expertise (which I have simply by virtue of having grown up in an English-speaking country), and generally soak up all the glory and admiration the kids have to offer – just because I’m exotic and interesting to them. It’s a good system. Plus, Yusuke and I are avid soccer fans, both watching and playing the beautiful game. This year, the new school manager is also a young soccer enthusiast, so the post-lunch soccer scrimmages with the kids are looking to be better than ever.

After having eaten school lunch with the kids for over a year now, one student finally pointed out to me the proper dish arrangement for eating. Rice goes on the left, the bowl of soup on the right, and the plate for miscellaneous items (like vegetables and fish) is placed behind them. I had been taught to “triangle eat” – eating a little bit of each item without finishing any food faster than the others – but no one ever pointed out how to arrange the plates until now. No matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn.

What it’s all about.

 

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Elementary School Chaos

The elementary kids are generally more rowdy than the junior high students. Although to be fair, the second year junior high kids tend to mix up it more than their first or third year counterparts. Still, the elementary kids maintain a constant buzz of playful excitement that the older students can’t match. Generally the fifth and sixth graders are quite open to English instruction, and while they can be wilder, the classes are very rewarding for a teacher like me.

Near the end of the school year the fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Seo, got quite sick, and ended up missing about a month of classes. During this time, the Principal and Vice Principal had to step in and teach the fifth grade as substitutes. This meant that when I came in to teach English on Tuesday, it all me, a one-man show. This wasn’t a problem at first, but without their regular teacher there to provide stability and discipline, the students began to unravel.

By the third week of Mrs. Seo’s absence, the classroom’s demeanor had changed. Even though the Vice Principal was right there in the room with us, a few of the boys started acting up. They’d randomly get out their seats and walk around the classroom, sometimes leaving the room completely. One of the louder troublemakers would try purposely shouting Japanese obscenities that had the slightly phonetic resemblance to the English vocabulary. (For example, instead of saying “Monday” one student yelled “manko”, a vulgar term for vagina.) One of the quieter troublemakers opted to ignore the whole lesson, simply cutting papers into little pieces with scissors and scattering the pieces all over the floor. The Vice Principal did his best to corral the hooligans, but the students had apparently learned to ignore the sense of groupism and shame that normally guides personal behavior in Japanese society. Besides asking the kids not to act up, there was little the VP could do.

Feeling that the class was losing interest in my lesson, I jumped right into the day’s game. The kids really only enjoy the game bits anyway, so why not, right? The vocabulary we were learning was the names of school subjects (like math, science, social studies, English, etc.), and I had prepared cards for each subject. The game we played was essentially just janken (じゃん拳 – Rock-paper-scissors), with an additional card collection element. Two students have a quick match of janken, and the losing student then asks the winner, “What subject do you like?” in English. The winner responds, “I like music”, for example, and if the losing student has a “Music” card, they have to give it to the winner. Once a student collects five cards of the same kind, they win the game.

I thought the game had a good blend of strategy and random chance, while providing a good platform for using the key phrases in context. Plus, my cards were pure gold – laminated gold – if I do say so myself. But to jump into the game portion of class when your kids aren’t behaving can be a risky move. If you succeed in engaging their interest than you can get them positively involved, sure. But kids (and adults too) can become so fixated on winning a meaningless game that they lose all sense of decorum. And when self-control is already in question, the game can make things worse. Things got off to great start and my gamble seemed to be paying off, but when a girl and boy started physically fighting over the school subject cards, everything fell apart.

The VP separated the children, who had ended up wrestling on the floor. The girl (let’s called her Kinno) laughed it off, while the boy (let’s called him Aki) seemed particularly crazed. (These aren’t their real names, by the way.) Perhaps Kinno had gotten in more hits than Aki had.

The VP physically held Aki back as he tried to push his way through to the girl and continue their fisticuffs. His eyes were intense and teary, and they shot daggers at his target. At some point, the VP left the Aki’s side for just a moment and he promptly decimated Kinno’s desk, throwing her books and papers on the floor, and pitching her pencil case across the room. Upon hitting the wall, the pencil case exploded its contents all over; writing utensils, rulers, erasers, and the like, spilt forth like candy from a piñata. The VP quickly took hold of the boy again, but the class went into total bedlam, as all the girls scurried about, helping pick up Kinno’s belongings. Amidst this chaos, one of the quiet young ruffians took the opportunity to stealthily grab a chalkboard eraser and hurl it across the room as well. Its wall impact was accompanied by a plume of chalky white powder, dissipating into the air like smoke after a bomb blast. Preoccupied with frenzied desk vandal, the VP didn’t even notice this.

It took quite awhile for the melee to calm down, and the all of the girls ignored the VP’s commands to sit down as they were desperate to find a missing lip balm cap. Unsure of how I could help the situation – not to mention what I was and wasn’t allowed to do – I simply stood at the front of the class, silent, arms crossed, and probably with a “you’ve gotta be kidding me” expression on my face. I think we almost regained control of the class by the time the bell rang, but not quite. The VP was extremely apologetic to me but I waved off the concern. It was really him who had it rough, and I felt I should have been the one apologizing.

The next week, Tuesday March 6th, Mrs. Seo was still absent. Again it would just be me teaching, with the Vice Principal there to help. While the previous week had gotten a bit nuts, I was confident that as long as the kids weren’t fighting each other, the class should go pretty smoothly. These hopes were dashed promptly, before I even got to the classroom. From down the hallway, about 50 meters from the room, the VP and I spotted the fifth grade boys playing outside of the classroom. One kid had a watering can and instead of garden plants, he was sprinkling the linoleum floor. Another kid was wielding a mop, and I wasn’t sure about it, but he may have been trying to clear up the mess. Last week’s most crazy student, Aki, took off his t-shirt, crouched down, and let the first kid shower his back with water. It was sure to be one of those days.

Inside the classroom, the at least three of the boys had damp clothes or were soaking wet. When I asked them how they were, a few responded, “I’m cold” in Japanese, not even trying to speak English with me. I said to Aki, “That’s probably because you’re not wearing a shirt and you’re all wet.” (If he wasn’t going to work with me, I wasn’t about to speak his language.) Initially, the students – the girls and boys both – refused to begin class with a simple “Hello Mr. Lucas”.

Even after he had his shirt back on, Aki was clearly determined to be as disruptive as possible. He didn’t even have the decency to try and make much vulgar word-based humor by mispronouncing the vocabulary, although he occasionally would still shout some. Instead, he repeated yelled in my direction, asking me who I was in overly casual Japanese. While this stuck as a tad disrespectful and unnecessary, his repeated use of the word temee (てめえ – a coarse, vulgar word for “you”) to refer to the Vice Principal was far worse.

To my surprise, Aki and Kinno were no longer fighting. In fact, the pair must have made up because Kinno was now supporting everything that Aki did. All of Aki’s angst was now directed at faculty and the two of them were both having a grand old time. In the class’s state of disorganization, it was like a Japanese Lord of the Flies (“Rold of the Fries”, if you will), and it was clear to me that we were going to get little to nothing done.

The lesson plan for the day was to wrap up our lessons covering the days of the week and school subjects by giving the kids the chance to make their own ideal schedules and present them to the class. I’m sure you can imagine exactly how excited the kids were to do this. The closest Aki came to participating was to again take off his shirt and tape school subject cards to his nipples. Kinno, who acts as something of a ringleader for the class’s girls, actually filled out her ideal schedule and the other girls followed her lead. As soon as she was done, she started spreading glue on the palm of her hand, and again, most of the girls followed suit. There was only one student who wasn’t taken in by the mob mentality and behaved perfectly amidst all this chaos. This girl’s father was also a teacher, so maybe she took pity on us. I’d occasionally walk over to her desk to check on her work and give quiet praise.

Aki ramped up his rebellion. A couple other boys began acting out a bit too, but their antics were merely mild imitations of Aki. At one point he left the classroom and returned with a camcorder. Where this kid found a video camera is beyond me, but he plugged the adapter into the wall socket and began recording the class. It took the VP quite a while to get the camcorder out of his hands, and after taking it away once, he grabbed it again and again. I almost wished the VP had just let him tape away, because the kid was at his least disruptive whilst distracted by the electronic device. After Aki had moved on from the camera, one of the other students (the erase thrower from the last act) picked it up too. The VP quickly took it from him and he seemed to lose interest immediately.

Still not satisfied, Aki eventually grabbed a wooden dowel from the corner of the room. The staff had probably been part of a large rollout map, but now was just a long wooden stick. Since you obviously don’t want your out-of-control student armed like Donatello, the VP immediately had his hands on the potential weapon as well. The two grappled for control of the stick, the VP trying to be gentle but firm. Clutching the rod the whole way, Aki walked over to his desk and sat down. Still grasping the other end, the VP followed along. Once Aki was in his seat, the VP pulled the stick with more force, yanking out of Aki’s talons with two tugs. This clearly angered the boy and he reacted by throwing a pair of scissors in the VP’s general direction. The scissors didn’t hit anyone, but that was definitely crossing a line. Still, class carried on just like normal – awkwardly.

We didn’t get to introducing the next chapter’s vocabulary like I had intended. I’d say we barely completed that schedule-making activity. There was never enough class cohesion for the students to present their schedules to the class, which was really the only important part of it. By the time the chime sounded, I was more than ready to leave. And I still had the sixth graders to teach!

I left that class feeling bad for the poor Vice Principal, as well as for the one student who behaved perfectly. That girl’s father is a teacher at the junior high, so I know the family pretty well. Sure enough, he asked me about the class the next day. Apparently things were so unpleasant for his daughter that she hadn’t wanted to go back to school the next day.

The following week, Mrs. Seo had still not recovered from her illness. This was my last class with the 5th graders for the year, and I’m proud to say that they probably learned a couple new words, like “iced tea” and “dessert”. (We were learning vocabulary for ordering food.) There was still plenty of craziness, but we got through the lot of new food terms. Even Aki halfheartedly participated, though mostly just to mispronounce “hotdog” as “hot chinpo” (ホットちんぽ – hot penis). I have a feeling that getting Mrs. Seo back in the classroom would have been the only way to restore order. Oh well.

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Tales from the Gakkou

A chorus of pencils rhythmically tapping away, it sounds like rain drops. In the quiet of the classroom with a test in progress, this is the sound of Japanese students writing. Each student silently focuses on the task at hand, and the scratching of their pencils is somehow magical. I find an odd serenity in this moment.

Here are some random stories of working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan, straight from the classroom.

My students would often say, “Nice guy! You’re nice guy!” But when I’d respond, “Thanks, I think you’re nice too,” they would wave off the compliment and say, “No, no, not me. You are nice guy.” I thought the students couldn’t be assholes if they were calling me nice, but I wondered why they wouldn’t agree that they too were kind people. Could Japanese culture be so modest that one can’t even accept being called nice? As it turns out, this was really just a miscommunication.

One of the 3rd year JH students showed me a picture of Jonny Depp from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He pointed to Captain Jack Sparrow and said, “I like, very much. Nice guy.” At this point, it was clear to me that “nice guy” could not possibly have the same meaning for these kids that it did for me. I asked him how you say “nice guy” in Japanese and he said “kakkoii” (かっこいい ). The definition of kakkoii is more like “attractive, good-looking, or stylish”. So when describing a person directly, “nice” would be a mistranslation. That day I taught the students a new word: “Cool.”

In conversation, people will often ask me why I came to Japan. The real answer is a somewhat complicated tale that I usually simplify to: “I’ve always been fascinated by Japan”, or even simpler, to “Ninjas”. But lately I’ve decided that from now on, I will answer the question like this: “The FOOD.” For me, a big perk of teaching English in Japan is the kyuushoku (給食 – school lunch).

While I’ve heard some varying reports from other ALTs, the lunches in Shakotan have been consistently amazing; not only delicious, but seemingly nutritious as well. The average school lunch includes rice, miso soup, a protein-rich food (probably fish), and a vegetable dish. This varies from day to day, but the school district’s dietitian tries to balance every meal according to national guidelines. The aim is to include your carbohydrate, vegetable, and protein foods in each lunch, while keeping the total calorie count below some specific number. Amusingly, they also try to balance lunch foods by color, which means including something red, something yellow, and something green in every meal. Yet somehow, even with these challenging parameters in place, they manage to make lunch delicious day after day. And at ¥4900 a month for five meals a week, it’s a hell of a deal.

Occasionally lunch will consists of western-style foods, usually something using bread, and while this is a disappointment, it’s still of a high enough quality to surpass anything that I was fed in public schools in the States. (Although to be honest, that’s not saying much.) The school’s spaghetti and meat sauce, while not as good as its homemade counterpart, is actually pretty damn respectable. Still, it’s the Japanese food staples that I really love.

I recently discovered that the weekly school lunch follows a pattern for meal composition. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are rice days, meaning the carbohydrate dish will be your standard rice. Tuesday is noodle day, so this is the glorious time when we’ll have a big bowl of udon or ramen, or alternatively, the spaghetti might appear. Finally, Thursdays are bread days. On Thursday we might have hotdogs (which involve a bun), or perhaps we’ll have a baguette or dinner roll, along with a savory soup, like cream of corn or pumpkin. I’m not fan of bread in Japan, so this is usually the least impressive lunch for me.

Speaking of eating, I’ve noticed an interesting digestive phenomenon in Japan: stomach rumbling. If you’ve watched much anime then you’ve almost certainly witnessed a character’s stomach audibly signal that he was hungry with a loud, churning groan. While I’ve certainly heard stomachs make noise before, its prevalence in anime would lead one to believe that it happens every time someone is hungry, probably every day. In my experience, my stomach has rarely, if ever, been vocal. In Japan, however, my stomach really does rumble a lot, like maybe every time that I’m really hungry.

Why would that be the case? I don’t actually know, but started theorizing and came up with a few thoughts. 1) Maybe in America, we rarely let ourselves to get to a point where we’re so hungry that our stomach is trying to digest itself. 2) A diet high in rice provides a more filling, energy-sustaining fuel than a bread-based diet, for instance, but when it runs out, you’ve really got nothing and your body cries out for sustenance. 3) If the TV adverts are to be believed, then drinking the right brand of tea actually starts a blazing green fire in your stomach. This fire simultaneously gives you tremendous energy and makes you thin and attractive. Since I’m from the States, eat rice every day, and drink lots of green tea, I have yet to try isolating any one variable to test each theory’s validity.

When talking about my classes, the other teachers were usually very complimentary. However, I often heard the term “high tension” (ハイテンション) used, which surprised me. Did I appear nervous in front the kids? Were the students frightened to have me in class? What could be the source of the tense atmosphere everyone’s describing? Well as I discovered, in Japanese “high tension” doesn’t mean what you think.

High tension (ハイテンション) means excited or enthusiastic, and it’s a positive word. It’s basically like saying that there’s electricity in the air. I think maybe this phrase originated with high voltage electronics, but I’m not really sure. So when the teachers said that the class was “high tension”, and Yusuke (the English teacher) said it was because of me, he wasn’t blaming me, he was being complimentary. This was a good thing to figure out.

Students at my junior high are so tidy that they always collect the rubber shavings that remain after they’ve erased something. Apparently to just brush the eraser dust onto the floor is considered quite lazy and rude. Yusuke tells me that it’s only common practice in this particular school, and that most kids in Japan are not so meticulous.

After lunch there is a break of 10 or 15 minutes, during which time the students will usually play around in the gym or, weather permitting, play outside. Throughout the summer months I would always spend this time outside, playing soccer with the students, and usually also with Yusuke. Since I missed my soccer team in Seattle so dearly, playing with the kids was a great joy for me. Eventually though, it got to cold and too rainy to play outside, and by December the field was good and buried with snow. With soccer no longer an option, I’d play games with the students inside the gymnasium.

In the gym, groups of boys will often form two teams to play full-court basketball. Meanwhile, groups of girls will circle up to juggle a volleyball back and forth. Often times I’d start shooting around with the boys until they inevitably started a game, and then I’d play too. While it wasn’t soccer, it was still good fun.

Yoshimura-sensei, the social studies teacher, could usually be found playing volleyball with the girls, unless someone set up the badminton net, in which case he’d always be there. The first time I jumped in on the volleying, it was on his invitation. I did my best to keep the ball constantly juggling, but I’m not really that good at volleyball. At one point I instinctively headed the ball, soccer-style, directly at one of the girls. This proved quite amusing to all involved.

One of the teachers told me that I was smart (スマート), a compliment which I humbly accepted. Then she added, “…but muscular” (くきょう). It was then that I realized that she was using to word “smart” in a fashion context, describing me as slim. Here I thought someone was seeing me as more than just a hot body…

One day while eating lunch with the third year junior high school students, a girl commented that my skin was very white. I was wearing a short sleeved shirt at the time, and my arms were looking quite pale, somewhere between alabaster and ghostly transparent. I agreed with the girl and used the term hakujin (白人), which very literally means white person. This might have sounded a tad derogatory, but I was talking about myself, so I figured Japanese etiquette would approve.

The student pointed at me and said, “White person”, then to herself and said, “Yellow monkey.”  Indicating the other students nearby, she said, “Yellow monkey, yellow monkey, yellow monkey…” My jaw hit the floor.

“No, no, no,” I said, laughing a bit at something what sounded really offensive to my ears, but maybe not so bad to the students.  “That’s bad. Don’t say that.”

A little later the same student pointed to me and asked, “White monkey?”

“Yes,” I replied, “white monkey.”

There is a chapter in the junior high first year textbook that features a bonobo named Kanzi. Kanzi is quite an intelligent ape and can do many things; he can even understand about 500 English words. One of the dialogues talks about the different between bonobos and chimpanzees, using the word “chimp.” I wondered if this was a practical joke, since the word “chimpanzee” in pronounced nearly identically in both English and Japanese, but chimp sounds almost identical to chinpo (ちんぽ), the Japanese word for penis.

This is also why one should refrain from using the European “chin-chin” when making toasts in Japan. While it represents the sound of glasses clanging together, chinchin (ちんちん) is also a children’s term for penis, like saying “pee-pee” in Japanese. So when I said the word “chimp”, as one would expect, the classroom of 13 year olds burst into laughter.

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