The Good, The Bad and The Aussie…

In case you didn’t hear me shouting the news from the rooftops, I finally got off that island (Japan). I escaped from the bubble. I jumped ship. I got the truck out of dodge. After three years of life as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), I hitched a flight home to Australia and those people who had begun to forget they’re my family. Some of you might be wondering what will happen to paperdoll now that I’m back? Surely without 400+ junior high school kids and the perils of culture shock to contend with every day, I mustn’t have much to write about now? I beg to differ…

I’ve only been back in Australia a month, but I’m already experiencing reverse culture shock after living abroad for six years (yes, there were another three years in the UK too…my addition skills aren’t that bad). So you see I’m home…but I feel like a foreigner in my own country. Even my family can’t believe I’m back for good and I swear my mother keeps pinching herself every time she sees me (which is a lot…since I’m living with my parents again…but that’ll be a whole other blog entry).

Right now, Japan and the UK are my most recent reference points for home and Australia is this strange land I am getting reacquainted with. As I get resettled, I will continue to write about my aventures in Japan (I still have so much to say about it all) and these new experiences of reverse culture shock…or as I’m now calling it…the good, the bad and the Aussie

The Good…

My family.

It’s the end of April…mid Autumn, with winter coming…and it’s around 25°C every day. Forget hellish Japanese winters!

NO MORE SQUAT TOILETS.

Squat_toilet_Japan_culture_shock

The Bad…

Green tea in Australia sucks. Period.

Red lights actually mean stop, not three-more-people-can-make-it-through-the-intersection-still.

No road cones to feed my weird addiction…

The Aussie…

People wave acknowledgements of kindness from their cars instead of bowing or flashing their hazard lights.

I can say spesh, noice, netty, chook, suss, arvo, sanga, Maccas, cuppa and all other manner of Aussie slang and be understood.

Meat pies.

The Good…

The earth doesn’t shake every day…or…well…ever.

I don’t have to eat rice.

I now work for myself and I love it (WARNING: imminent, shameless self promotion: threefold.com.au)

The Bad…

Australia stinks…literally. After living in Japan I can’t handle strong fragrances anymore.

The speed limit is actually the speed limit.

NO ORIGAMI PAPER.

koala2

The Aussie…

Everyone is up for a chat…the postman, the checkout chick and the pizza guy…

Men. With the ability to grow facial hair. With muscles. With height. With masculinity. Enough said.

Tim Tams, Vegemite, Caramello Koalas…nomnomnom…

The Good…

Anonymity. Sweet anonymity.

One word…organic.

I keep reaching for XL size clothing in stores…only to remember I’m not a giant in this country.

The Bad…

I can feel my Japanese ability leaching out of my brain with every English conversation I have.

Small showers.

No fan club of adoring teenage kids to stroke my ego every day.

The Aussie…

Competitive sport.

Fresh, un(less?)polluted air.

Thongs are things people wear on their feet and there aren’t many Kiwis, Americans or Brits around to refute the point.

The Good…

I can enjoy a restaurant meal without having cigarette smoke billowing in my face.

I don’t have to carry a wad of cash around in my wallet (though the card charges from my first night out in Australia might make this a moot point…).

I sleep on a bed…not the ground.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Bad…

No rainbow of KitKat flavours…though this might in fact be a good thing…

My Converse addiction will cost me double than what it did in Japan.

No amusing Engrish.

kinkakuji toilet sign

The Aussie…

Triple J music.

The Hills Hoist in the back yard…which virtually snap dries my clothing immediately.

This…

Who Cares if They’re Naughty or Nice?

Three weeks before Christmas, I initiated an ‘English Christmas Challenge’ for my students. The concept was simple…if they wrote me a Christmas story or letter in English, I would write them a reply and give them a small present in return. The only rules were that they had to write a minimum of three sentences and they could only receive two presents…any letters after that were purely for the joy of corresponding with me in English (ha).

Two days and 20 letters into the challenge, the teachers started calling me ‘Santa’ as I wandered the halls giving out presents from my Christmas stocking (it’s all about the theatrics…not the hundred yen gifts). With a total of 434 students, I started to wonder…had I bitten off more than I could chew? Come the end of semester, was I going to end up with carpal tunnel from hours of writing replies? Would I be rocking myself in the fetal position having nightmares about the 2nd year boys trying to pillage my stocking?!

I came to realise that children can be bought (quite cheaply apparently) and by the end of the challenge I had received 164 letters in total. I had been Santa to these kids and received letters from all kinds of students. From the ones who can write English in their sleep to the ones who still can’t spell their own names after three years of study. From the kid who never opens his English textbook in class, to the cute little 1st year girl who writes to me every week. The letters and the students who wrote them were many and varied, but in the end I realised… who cares if they’re naughty or nice? As long as they use English…

There were the cute letters with declarations of adoration and love…

There were the comments/pictures regarding my appearance…

There were letters about music (good and bad)…

There were the students channeling Yoda into their writing…

There were the sweet talkers (who were clearly only in it for one thing)…

Then there were the unexpected presents. Some cute…

And some not so cute (a picture of Arashi and a scrunchie)…

And some just weird…like ear buds these pellets that expanded in water?!

There were the letters to make me laugh…

There were the letters containing Engrish…

Oh and then there were the letters from the Gods…

And lastly, there were the hand made Christmas cards from my special needs students…

The experience was possibly more entertaining for me than the students but nonetheless, it got them reading, writing, listening and speaking English more than they would on a usual day.

While I am secretly glad I don’t have 20+ students writing to me every day, I was happy to receive these cards in the mail over winter break and know that at least some of the kids will continue writing for the joy of an English exchange with me…even now that the presents have dried up and Santa has retired…

Ode to Yuji

Yuji, the baseball player, with bat and glove,

The fifteen year old boy, who adorned me in love.

Yuji, school life just isn’t the same,

With you in Kyushu playing the game.

Yuji, I wonder, how are you today?

In the south of Japan, so far away.

Yuji, six months, since you left my life,

Are you cheeky as ever, causing all kinds of strife?

Yuji, I’m left, incomplete and in pain,

Without you here, to drive me insane.

Yuji, to me, you played a large part,

The only J-boy, to capture my heart.

Yuji, the others, they try to be you,

Kazuki, Ryuji and the senseis too.

Yuji, the others, they fail to be,

Your replacement, they aren’t, it’s plain to see.

Yuji, these days, no love comes my way,

No smile, no message, no sweet words you say.

Yuji, have you moved on, and left me for dead?

Those advances you made, just words you said?

Yuji, since you seem to have cast me aside,

Is there another, along for the ride?

Yuji, who is it now, you give your love to?

Some teen, a groupie…or worse, tell me true!

Yuji, what English are you learning these days?

On who are you honing your lover boy ways?

Yuji, be honest, tell me, who’s your ALT now?

Have you replaced me with some other foreign cow?!

Yuji, why bother, she’s no me, I’ll bet,

Not rolling her eyes, nor playing hard to get.

Yuji, she won’t be a challenge for you,

You need the chase, you know you do!

Yuji, forget her, this other ALT,

Get on a shink and come back to me!

Yuji, our history, please don’t forget,

Don’t let this end, in a poem of regret.

Yuji, I’m sorry, I treated you so bad.

No, that’s not true, I’m actually glad.

Yuji, you loved it, no need for lies here,

So please just come back, so we can be near.

Yuji, you’re gone, but I want you back,

My days at Omiya-chu, your love they lack.

Yuji, I miss those games we played,

Oh how I wish, you could have stayed.

Yuji, I wait for your return to me,

While you’re off playing baseball, a star to be.

Yuji, when you’re a man (and baseball pro),

Look me up in Australia, I’ll be ready to go…

A Pain in the Proverbial…

It’s no secret that Japan is littered with examples of misappropriated English…or Engrish, as we foreigners like to call it. The bane of an English teacher’s life in Japan, Engrish is everywhere…on clothing, in restaurant menus, on stationery…and most frequently…on toilet signage.

In all of those instances I can grit my teeth, take a photo and present it on facebook or Paperdoll (remember A Picture is Worth a Thousand Kanji?!) for the amusement of people all over the world. But when the mistakes appear repeatedly and right under my nose at school, it becomes a real pain in the proverbial

It seems that the teachers and students forget that they have a native English speaker at their disposal to consult in matters like these, before ‘going to press’. But this is Japan and the stubborn mistakes will persist…and besides, sometimes they get it right…in more ways than one…

Backchat…

Last week was the first week back at school after summer break…and a lengthy six weeks off. After the freedom of such a leisurely lifestyle, the start of school was probably more dreaded by ALTs than students (who pretty much still have to go to school every day  in that time). When school went back, Facebook became the soapbox from which ALTs could moan about the misery of hot classrooms, hours of sports day practice and early starts once again.

I on the other hand (surprisingly), was pretty excited about my first week back at school. I had actually missed the kids (well…not all of them) and was looking forward to catching up with my teachers after my ‘Soba Up‘ experience. With all this anticipation I must have been exuding some good vibes, because in my first week back, I have been rewarded with some interesting and amusing back chat both in and out of school…

First day, first lesson back…

Me: ‘How was your summer vacation?’

Student: ‘It was great!’

Me: ‘What did you do?’

Student: ‘I did sex!’

In the teachers’ room…

Me (in Japanese): ‘Excuse me, T Sensei? (who I haven’t spoken to since my bike had a puncture two months ago) I have a favour to ask you…’

T Sensei: ‘Yes, what is it?’

Me: ‘Well, umm, it seems as though my bike has a puncture again…and well…you look really busy…but I was just wondering…if you could…maybe…?’

T Sensei: Shaking his head and laughing, ‘You want me to fix it again?’

Me: ‘Yes, I’m really sorry! You don’t have to do it now, just whenever you have time is ok.’

K Sensei (who was listening in to the entire exchange decides to offer his two sents worth in English): ‘Carla Sensei, no problem!’ Pointing to T Sensei, ‘Professional!!!’ Laughing.

T Sensei: Gives K Sensei a death stare and immediately goes and fixes the puncture on my bike.

I felt so bad about T Sensei that I left this ‘thank you’ present on his desk the next day…

At the grocery store after school, a little old man sidles up next to me as I’m bagging my groceries…

LOM: ‘Konnichiwa!‘ Smiling broadly at me.

Me: ‘Konnichiwa’ Smiling back.

LOM: ‘Chikaku (Do you live nearby)?’

Me: ‘Hai, chikaku ni sunde imasu (Yes, I live nearby).’

LOM: ‘Aparto (In an apartment)?’

Me: ‘Hai, aparto desu (Yes, in an apartment).’

LOM: ‘Sayonara!’ Walks away smiling.

In class with my third year students…

O Sensei: ‘Ms.Carla, what did you do during summer vacation?’

Me: ‘I went to Morioka and did the Wanko Soba Challenge. I ate 60 bowls of soba.’

36 students simultaneously move their eyes from my face to my stomach.

At the teachers’ drinking party with the second year social science teacher (who may have a slight thing for me)…

SS Sensei: ‘If I could take you on a date, first we’d go for a walk in the park. Then we’d go and eat spaghetti. Then I’d take you to karaoke and sing ‘Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma, c’mooooooon Caaaaaarlaaaa.’

Lunch with Class 3-1…sitting next to Ayumi…

Ayumi: ‘Summer vacation. Australia.’

Me: ‘You went to Australia in summer vacation?’

Ayumi: ‘Yes, yes!’ Screwing up her face, ‘Hamburger, on, red vegetable…NO LIKE!!!’

Me: Giggling, ‘Ahh, you don’t like beetroot?!’

Ayumi: ‘Yes, yes! NO LIKE!!!’

In the third year hallway between classes…

Female Student: Pointing to male student, ‘Up, up!’

Me: ‘What? He got taller over summer?’

Female Student: Looking disgusted, ‘Noooooooo! Dick up!’

On the sports field practicing for sports day with Kazuki…

Kazuki: Grinning upon seeing me, ‘Ms.Carla, Ms.Carla!!!’

Me: ‘Hi, Kazuki!’

Kazuki: Looking very excited and gesturing a lasso above his head, ‘Ms.Carla. Cowboy game, c’mon!’ Dragging me out to the middle of the sports field.

Me: ‘Ok, Kazuki…teach me. What do I do?’

Kazuki: ‘Ball, guruguru’ Repeating his lasso gesture with a rope and ball in hand, ‘Hit!’ Pointing to a road cone sitting on a desk about four metres away.

I complete the task, knocking the cone off the desk on my first attempt. I turn around to be greeted to applause from the entire second grade…they had been watching the whole time.

At the teachers’ drinking party…schmoozing with the big guys…

Sports Sensei: ‘Carla, you’re drinking red wine tonight?’

Me: ‘Well, I was drinking beer, but now I’m drinking red wine. I prefer red wine.’

Vice Principal: ‘Yes, Carla is a strong drinker!’

During English class with 3-4…

Me: ‘Yudai, you have to write your name in English on your worksheet.’

Yudai: Gives me a blank look (Yudai is a jock and a low level student who is notorious for distracting the whole class).

Me: ‘Kengo, can you please show Yudai how to write his name in English?’

Kengo: ‘Sure!’ Writes ‘Youdie’ and grins at me proudly.

It’s now the second week back at school and as the heat continues I hope this back chat does too…

The Yuji Diaries

Every now and then a girl has a special boy come into her life and sweep her off her feet. I am not that girl…and Yuji is not that boy. But, over the last two years, Yuji certainly became an important part of my life at Omiya Junior High School.

Sure, there were other boys to declare their undying devotion to me…there was Takeshi, the sensitive soul who is the ‘in sickness and in health’ kinda guy. Then there was the pervert, Shunsuke, always wanting to know ‘what colour under hair?’ I have (yes, a real charmer). I did have a soft spot for the dreamer, Kohei, waiting patiently on the sidelines for an opportunity to win me over…and lastly there was Hayate, who always came to my rescue in times of need, wanting to be my knight in shining armour.

All these boys had their own unique brand of seduction technique, but none of them compared to Yuji. None could beat the dogged (and humorous) persistence he threw into the task of wooing me over the last two years. And so I dedicate this post to Yuji: The Boy, The Baseball Player, The No.1 Comedian…

9th November 2010

Dear Diary,

Apparently I have ‘small milky breasts’. How do I know this, you ask? Well today, one of my 2nd year students, Yuji Kikuchi, was kind enough to tell me. Yuji is on the baseball team and very cheeky. I found it hard to be mad at him when he grinned at me so innocently, he was using English, and let’s face it…his observation iscorrect.He seemed to derive great enjoyment from my shocked reaction, so I doubt this is the last I’ll be hearing from Yuji…The now very self conscious,

Carla

28th June 2011

Dear Diary,

Apart from repeatedly telling me I have ‘small milky breasts’ over the last several months, Yuji has been rather quiet…until today. Clearly he realised (finally) that he needed new material to get my attention. This was actually kind of sweet…

Yuji’s new muse,
Carla

9th September 2011
Dear Diary,

Yuji was completely upstaged by the sweet words of Hayate today…

Yuji: ‘Ms.Carla, small milky breasts’
Me: ‘Yes Yuji, so you keep telling me’
Hayate: ‘Small breast, but beautiful face’

Bless Hayate, he made my day. But I dread to think how Yuji might retaliate to this blatant act of war.

Yours in fear,
Carla

14th September 2011

Dear Diary,

Well, Yuji staged his comeback against Hayate in class today. Clearly he has realised his ‘treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen’ tactics are not working on me, so now he is trying his hand at the sweet approach. His statement today:

‘I have been in love with Ms.Carla forever’ The cheeky grin was an added bonus thrown in for free…

The object of unrequited love,
Carla

5th October 2011
Dear Diary,

Today Yuji decided to go public with his love for me, and dragged me into the declaration too. His neighbour was away so I got to fill in for dialogue creation…Yuji’s grin as I walked toward his desk told me I was in for a treat. This was our dialogue…above the pink line is what we came up with together…under is what he added when I wasn’t looking…

Then Yuji volunteered us to perform our dialogue in front of the class! The more the students (and O Sensei) laughed, the wider Yuji’s grin became…and the redder my face became. Yuji was very pleased that he managed to squeeze the words ‘I love you’ out of me, especially in front of such an appreciative audience.

Yours in mortifying embarrassment,
Carla

21st November 2011

Dear Diary,

Today Yuji ramped up his efforts to win me over with his creative writing in class…

Yours with a slightly swollen ego,
Carla

30th November 2011

Dear Diary,

It came to my attention today that Yuji’s hair has become quite tall of late. Since club activity came to an end for the 3rd year students four months ago, Yuji has abandoned his baseball team buzz cut in favour of this new gravity defying monstrosity. I questioned him about his new style today:

Me: Yuji, you have a new haircut?
Yuji: Yes, you like?
Me: Umm, it’s interesting. It’s very…tall
Yuji (excitedly): Yes, yes! Chicken hair!
Me: Chicken hair?
Yuji: Yes, look chicken.
Me: You look like a chicken? Why do you want to look like a chicken?!
Yuji: Chicken hair cool!!!
Me: Okaaaay…

I will never understand the fashion trends of teenagers in Japan. Clearly Yuji is preparing himself to be one of the cool kids in high school. Quite why you need ‘chicken hair’ to achieve this, I’m not entirely sure.

Yours in Japanese fashion confusion,
Carla

14th December 2011

Dear Diary,

Yuji got hold of a speaking electronic dictionary in class today…and he found the ‘dating’ vocab section. Intermittently throughout class I had a polite American woman say to me:

‘You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.’
‘I’m crazy for you.’
‘You’re the one for me.’
‘I love you.’
‘Can we talk?’
‘Will you marry me?’

How does this kid not have a girlfriend?! Oh that’s right, because apparently I am his girlfriend…lucky me.

The still giggling,
Carla

16th December 2011

Dear Diary,

Today I had lunch with Yuji (and the polite American woman):

‘Can we talk? I have something to tell you…’
‘It was love at first sight.’
‘I can’t live without you.’
‘Stop playing hard to get!’

The apparently ‘playing hard to get’,
Carla

11th January 2011

Dear Diary,

Yuji’s hair has reached staggering new heights (literally):

Me: Yuji, you still have chicken hair?
Yuji: No, no, no, no. No chicken hair!
Me: It looks like chicken hair. What is it now?
Yuji: (motioning a wave washing over his head)
Me: Wave hair?!
Yuji: Yes, yes, YES!!!
Me: Ok. Why wave hair?
Yuji: Because it’s coooooooool!

Whatever you say Yuji, whatever you say…

Despairing over Yuji’s wave hair,
Carla

18th January 2012
Dear Diary,
3rd year graduation looms near. In two months my time with Yuji will end. He has become aware of the fact:

Do you think this counts as my first official marriage proposal?! Mum will be so pleased, I’m sure.

The blushing bride to be (ha),
Carla

19th January 2012

Dear Diary,

This was the extent of my interaction with Yuji today:
This morning…
Me: Good morning Yuji.
Yuji: I love you.
Me: I know.
Later…
Me: Hello Yuji.
Yuji: I love you.
Me: I know.
Warm up activity in class…
Me: What kind of girls are you interested in?
Yuji: Only Ms.Carla. Just Ms.Carla.
During class…
Yuji: I love you.
Me: I know.
Yuji: Do you love me?
Me: No.
Yuji: Yes!
Me: No.
Yuji: Yes!
Me: No.
Yuji: Yes you can!!!
This afternoon…
Me: Bye Yuji.
Yuji: I love you.
Me: I know.

It now feels like we have this skit well rehearsed…

Yuji’s personal heart-breaker,
Carla

2nd February 2012

Dear Diary,

Yuji caught me with a surprise declaration-of-love-attack today:

Yuji: Standing outside the 3-4 classroom while I eat lunch. Knocks on the door for my attention.
Me: Look up to see Yuji grinning at me.
Yuji: Yells through the door (so the entire 3-4 class can hear), I LOVE YOU!!!
Me: I know Yuji!
Yuji: Blows kisses and runs away.

The amazed,
Carla

3rd February 2012
Dear Diary,
Today Yuji put in his order for Valentine’s Day…
Yuji: Hi Ms.Carla!
Me: Hi Yuji!
Yuji (thinking and gesturing madly): You…me…Ms.Carla make chocolate…me…
Me: You want me to make you chocolates? For Valentine’s Day?
Yuji (grinning): Yes!!! Ok?
Me: No, sorry Yuji.
Yuji: Yes. Ok?
Me: No.

Yuji: Yes. Ok!!!

Killer of Yuji’s hopes and dreams,
Carla

8th February 2012

Dear Diary,

Today’s conversation with Yuji on the soccer field at lunch:

Me: Yuji, I hear you broke Tomoya’s arm playing soccer?

Yuji: Yes.

Me (knowing it was an accident): Why?!

Yuji (grinning): Because I’m No.1 Best Soccer Player!!! Please give chocolate.

The future No.1. Best Soccer Player’s wife,
Carla

9th February 2012

Dear Diary,

Yuji continues to be persistent about this Valentine’s business…

Yuji: Give me chocolate.
Me: No Yuji…your girlfriend will give you chocolate for Valentines Day.
Yuji: No, no! Ms.Carla my girlfriend!

The Valentine’s Grinch,
Carla

15th February 2012

Dear Diary,

Well, what do you know…Yuji got a Valentine’s surprise yesterday…

Me: Did you get chocolates yesterday?
Yuji: No, no, no, no, no! BUT I got card!
Me: Really? Who from?
Yuji: Ms.Carla!
Me: Nooooo, I don’t think so…
Yuji: Yes! I’m happy! I cry! (grinning)

Giver of false hope,
Carla

20th February 2012

Dear Diary,

The insatiable Yuji was at it again today:

Yuji: I love you!
Me: I know. But you are trouble.
Yuji: Trouble どう言ういみ?(What does ‘trouble’ mean?)
Me: (chuckling) めんどくさい (Mendokusai/troublesome)
Yuji: (grinning) I’m trouble! Do you love trouble?!

Attractor of trouble,
Carla

22nd February 2012

Dear Diary,

Today I did ‘Crazy Sentences’ with the 3rd year students. This is the gem Yuji and his group came up with…Yuji wrote the first sentence and then his loving classmates (knowing about his infatuation with me), kindly carried on the story for him…

A truly inspired piece of English literature…the legend of Yuji’s love for me will be remembered by these kids forever.

The one who apparently doesn’t like Yuji,
Carla

29th February 2012

Dear Diary,

Today was my last lesson with Yuji before he graduates. To mark the occasion, he wrote and said a speech for me:

After Yuji gave his speech he said he was sad…while grinning. I cried. Only eight more school days until he leaves my life…what will I do?!

Dreading the inevitable,
Carla

2nd March 2012

Dear Diary,

Today was my last lunch with 3-5 before graduation and fate ensured I had a seat opposite Yuji and his best mates Shu and Kenji for the occasion. We were all then treated to Yuji monologing for the duration of lunch…

I might actually miss Yuji’s ‘perfect face’ when he isn’t around any more.

Second to Yuji’s other girlfriend, Eddy Murphy,
Carla

12th March 2012

Dear Diary,

Today Yuji graduated from Omiya Junior High School. I cried. Yuji did not. In fact, since he shaved off his eye brows last week and his obsession with his ‘wave hair’ reaches epic proportions, he seems to have lost all interest in winning me over. He is all grown up and moving on. After today I won’t have Yuji’s daily professions of love to amuse me in the hallways at school, but something tells me this isn’t the last time I’ll be seeing Yuji…

The now very sad and Yuji-less,
Carla

Testing Times…

My life as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) is a pretty sweet one. I get to act like a teenage kid most days, I ‘teach’ on average 16 hours a weeks, I get around ten weeks holiday a year, my students treat me like a celebrity and every day I get to laugh at least once. I’d say 95% of the time I love my job. The other 5% of the time, however, is extremely testing…

I detest marking English test papers…

Last Friday my students had their end of term tests. This in turn meant I had the day at school without classes…happily spending my time doing Japanese study, emailing friends, chatting to the other teachers and making posters for my first year students. At least that was until M Sensei, my main JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), asked the question all ALTs fear most…’Can you please help check the English test papers from third period?’.

I’m actually being kind to M Sensei here…of all three of my JTEs he has the lowest level of English ability, so the request was more like, ‘Today English test. Second period finish. Please check help.’ This kind of request can only mean one thing…I’m about to face that 5% of my job that I detest.

I can attest to the fact I’m not alone…

All ALTs detest marking exam papers. Come exam time, facebook is littered with the misery of ALTs embarking on this task, and the empathetic comments of fellow native speakers who know the pain all too well. Normally genki ALTs who love playing games with kids in class are forced to bleed red ink onto test papers like blood from their veins…draining them of life and all happiness.

So why it the task so detestable? Surely we should be excited to see the progress our students have made throughout the term? We should want to share in their joy as our students achieve wondrous marks after having absorbed all that English knowledge we imparted on them, shouldn’t we? If only we lived in a world…or more pointedly…a country, where that might be possible.

The truth is, marking tests is the time when ALTs feel like a complete failure as English teachers, as we see that despite our best efforts, our students seem to have learnt very little, if anything. It’s the time when the sad truth is revealed…it is really difficult for these kids to learn English in the Japanese education system.

Japanese students are crash test dummies…

The Japanese education system is one that hinges on testing. It is no exaggeration that Japanese people spend their entire childhood (and then some) studying for the next exam. Not only are they tested in all subjects repeatedly throughout their school life, they actually have to pass exams to get into school in the first place.

From the time they start kindergarten, a Japanese person’s life becomes focused on passing entrance exams. An exam to get into elementary school, followed by an exam to enter into junior high school, then if they choose to (which around 94% do) an exam for acceptance into high school then again for university. The better they do on the test, the better chance they have of getting into a good school.

The longer I live and teach in Japan, the more I appreciate the fact that I am Australian and went through the education system there. Seeing the strain and pressure my students suffer every day (at the ages of 13-15) actually makes me feel guilty for the charmed life I have led.

M Sensei mentioned the other day that on average in Japan, at least one student in every class will suffer some kind of breakdown from the pressures of school life. As ALTs we often talk of kids disappearing from school mid term without a trace…or some students appearing only for the first time on graduation day…and many students having to be taught in isolation from the other kids. Some of these kids have debilitating psychological issues that prevent them from participating in the stress of daily school life.

I’m really not surprised when I think about how different their school life is compared to the one I had. In high school (the equivalent of junior high here), I majored in six subjects total…all but two being elective subjects. By comparison, my students study Japanese, English, math, science, art, social studies, health and physical education, home economics, music, industrial arts and moral education. That’s 11 subjects all told…all compulsory.

How do they find the time and means to squeeze all that knowledge into their brains? Oh that’s right…while I was out terrorising the neighbourhood on my bike after school every day, these kids are going to cram school. A typical day for any one of my students looks something like this:

6:30am – Wake up
7:30am – Club activity before school
8:15am – School starts (5-6 lessons each day)
4:00pm – School finishes, club activity starts
5:30pm – Club activity finishes, kids leave school (6:30pm in summer)
6:00pm – Cram school
8:00pm – Dinner and ‘family time’
8:30pm – Piano practice (or some other instrument…but nearly all of my students play piano)
9:30pm – Homework/study
11:30pm – Bed

And this is just an average student…I know kids who also do other sports outside of school and most kids have sporting tournaments or more cram school on weekends too. Knowing all of this about my students, I am surprised only one student in every class has a breakdown from the pressures of school life…

It’s a gastrointestinal system of learning…

All this evidence makes it clearer as to why my kids aren’t getting the sterling results on their English test papers that I had hoped for. For starters English is compulsory, which means about half of the class don’t want to be there. Then there is the reality that many of the kids are probably thinking about one of their other ten subjects while I’m reciting the textbook…trying to remember if they finished all their homework for the next lesson. If all of that isn’t distracting them from the joy of learning English, then maybe the pressure of the upcoming test is sending them into a pit of despair? Given the testing methods in Japan, it wouldn’t surprise me. I’m not sure about other subjects, but certainly for English the system of learning is very clear:

Step 1. Swallow the textbook in it’s entirety.

Step 2. Memorise word for word said textbook.

Step 3. Regurgitate in the exam.
Step 4. Get perfect grades.

Step 5. Repeat for every exam.

Considering this is a language we are teaching, it seems rather counter productive to me that these kids are tested on reading, writing and listening in their English exams…but never speaking. I’ve never been a fan of the regurgitation method of learning and I certainly don’t think it has any place in language study, where the emphasis should be on communication. I am not insinuating the system here in Japan is flawed. I am screaming from the rooftops that it is.

Case in point, one of my students Ms.Tsuji (test pictured above). She attains at least 98% on every single English exam because she can follow Steps 1-5 of the Japanese gastrointestinal system of learning. Yet in the whole two years that I have been teaching this girl, she has never once spoken a single word of English to me. Satisfactory way of learning a language? You tell me…

I’m unable to protest…

Much like these kids are instructed to swallow their textbooks, I have to swallow the knowledge that this is how things are done in Japan. It has been this way forever and so it will stay this way forever more. As an ALT in Japan I am completely powerless to change the system…and so it will continue to perpetuate in this ineffectual way.

Proof of this sad truth is the fact that M Sensei went through this same system my students are going through and most days I am astounded and appalled that he is permitted to teach English. Yes, he knows the junior high school textbooks word for word and can teach the students the required grammar and vocab from those textbooks. But I’m often left wondering if he got his English teaching degree from a vending machine, as he simply cannot hold a conversation with me and he rarely understands even the most basic of queries I pose to him in English. Some days, our neighbour H Sensei (the social science teacher, who lived in London for several years) has to step in and translate for M Sensei when I become too stubborn and annoyed to speak in Japanese.

So yes, 95% of the time I love my job, when I can somehow push this knowledge to the back of my mind and try to reach my students and extract some kind of creative response from them that doesn’t come directly from the dreaded pages of a New Horizon textbook. But that other 5% of the time can make you question ‘why do I bother?’…especially when I have to mark M Sensei’s test answer sheet before I even start on the kids’ test papers…

And the contestants for most common errors are…

It is an incredible phenomenon, which perhaps is born from the five step system of learning…but my students are infallibly consistent in their error making. Other ALTs profess the same problem and I wasn’t kidding in my previous post ‘30 Japanese School Truths‘…it really doesn’t seem to matter if you are right or wrong…as long as your answer is the same as everyone else’s. Every time it comes to marking test papers I come across the exact same suspects for most common mistakes…and the top three contests are:

1. Miscapitalisation. Weekdays will be missing capitals at their start, random capitals will appear in the middle of words and the most irritating and painfully persistent one…97% of my students blatantly refuse to capitalise ‘k’s’. This is enough to drive me crazy on any normal day…Friday I had to mark test papers where one of the answers had ‘King Kong’ in it. I started to understand how a completely sane human being can just snap one day…

2. Spelling mistakes of the most common words. ‘Went’ will be written as ‘want’, ‘r’s’ will be replaced by ‘l’s’, ‘th’s’ become ‘s’s’ and don’t even get me started on plurals…or the lack of…

3. Copying an error. Again, rather than be different (and correct), my students will copy an error from the exam rather than challenge it. M Sensei spelt ‘friend’ incorrectly on Friday’s exam…a word these kids have known for two years…and all but a handful of students copied the mistake. Only one student actually questioned the error in the comments section of the test paper…this kid is my new best friend (not freind).

The deftest of answers can catch you off guard…

For all the depression test marking brings down on an ALT, I always find at least one little gem that makes me smile through the pain. The errors literally do reduce me to tears sometimes, but every now and then they bring on tears of laughter. Those times when an innocent child forgets to leave that rather essential space between the words ‘pen’ and ‘is’ or ‘work’ is written as ‘wank’. Friday I came across this nice little surprise…misspelt, but it elicited a giggle none the less…

A testament there is hope….

Despite the detestable time I had checking the kids’ test papers on Friday, one paper left an impression on me. Yuuki Kaneko’s. This student is painfully shy and rarely speaks to me in class, but I often catch him watching me, especially when I am reading from the text…seemingly mesmerised. I always assumed it was just because he was bored or somewhat awestruck, like some of the other kids get about my blonde hair and blue eyes. Friday’s test revealed otherwise.

Yuuki does not have a natural English ability and because he prefers to speak to M Sensei during activity time, I have had very little to do with him. On the test last Friday, students had space to do ‘free writing’…a chance to write five or so sentences of their own. Most students wrote about their favourite sport, comic book or singer…all cookie cutter responses copied straight from the textbook. Yuuki’s sentences were are little more considered though and certainly had a lasting impact…

What gave his words more value was that he achieved well in this section of the test, where he could exhibit his creativity and free thought. The rest of the paper…where he was supposed to regurgitate the textbook, he failed miserably.

Even with his overall poor result on the test, Yuuki’s words give me hope that at least some of these kids will fight to be creative and emerge as individuals from this education system. His words remind me to focus on the 95% of the time I love my job and remember that despite the testing times, sometimes what I do can make a difference.

Boys Will Be Boys…

This post comes with a disclaimer: I want it to be known I have 3 other blog entries in the making…all pieces of sophisticated commentary on life in Japan. But all those words seem completely irrelevant, or worse…boring, compared to the material the kids at school give me to write about. Let’s face it…I can’t script the kind of humour they produce for me on a daily basis…

I’ve been back at school precisely six days since my summer break and the kids’ English has been on fire since their return. The contributing factors for this behaviour are; A. They missed me (truly) and are desperate to speak to me any chance they get, B. Many of my 3rd year students went to Australia over summer and want to tell me about their experience and last (but not least), C. The kids (boys) scored a barrage of new (and inappropriate) vocab from the kids (boys) in Australia and want to test it out on me.

School this week has been dedicated to practice for the sports carnival being held tomorrow. As such I have had the chance to chat to the kids quite a bit outside of the classroom… a double edged sword situation. On the one hand, they can speak English in a low pressure, fun environment…on the other, they can get away with saying a whole lot more to me without a Japanese teacher nearby to keep them in line.

Today I got to experience both sides of the coin and as such I have concluded that it is a global phenomenon that ‘boys will be boys’. The following is a cross section of the comments and questions I received from my 3rd year students out on the sports field this afternoon. Boys’ comments in red, girls’ comments in white…

‘Miss Carla, white skin. Very beautiful.’

‘Do you play sex?’ (actions included)*

‘You face, very beautiful.’

‘You know blow job?’ (actions included)*

‘Miss Carla, long leg. Good style.’

‘Have you play sex? Have you play blow job?’ (actions included)*

‘Do you have boyfriend?’

‘You like blow job? Is delicious?’ (actions included)*

‘Miss Carla very cute!’

‘What breast cup size? What panties colour?’*

‘Miss Carla, blue eye. Very beautiful.’

‘Do you know masturbate? Have you masturbate?’ (actions included)*

‘You know Miyazaki? He my boyfriend. What think?’

‘Penis in vagina yet? When first time sex?’*

‘You like Japanese boy?’

Yuji: ‘Miss Carla, small milky breasts’
Me: ‘Yes Yuji, so you keep telling me’
Hayate: ‘Small breast, but beautiful face’

(Hayate gives me hope for all mankind.)

*all these questions were answered with ‘No Comment’ to which the boys then derived their own answers on my behalf.

Tennis Mafia & Taiko

That’s right OC followers…it has almost been a month since I left the safety of Australia to embark on this Japanese life…and let me tell you, the last week has been very eventful! From my induction into ‘Tennis Club Mafia’ to my first Japanese Karaoke experience, every day has been an adventure…

Things started quietly on Monday with a normal school day and ongoing introduction lessons as I continue to plough my way through the first 14 classes. In an effort to stave off boredom in the teachers’ room and show the kids I have an active interest in them I also made the somewhat rash decision to make name tags for the students…all 400 plus of them. My JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) were fairly surprised and pleased to discover I could read Hiragana (one of the Japanese syllabic systems) and that I was willing to translate into English for the kids. A week later I have finished 1st and 2nd years…hmm.

In a bid to win over my main JTE, Masuda Sensei…and some of the kids, I signed up to join in with tennis club on Tuesday afternoon (as Masuda Sensei is the tennis club coach for the boys team). Again, not really thinking things through, I forgot that the boys and girls are separated and that in fact I wouldn’t get to talk to Masuda Sensei at all! Despite that, it was a gorgeous day and I had a blast. I haven’t played tennis in SO long though and I have certainly never played ‘soft’ tennis on a dirt court, so it was a very new experience.

The girls seemed to enjoy having me there (they particularly liked my praise…’great smash’) but my biggest fan was Isono Sensei…the tennis club coach for the girls. She thinks I am a star on court and as such I somehow agreed to buy a racquet and play against her on a regular basis! She is a pretty cool teacher…I reckon if I was 15 years older and Japanese I would be a lot like her. I think she suffers from my competitive streak so the games could get interesting. So yes, I am now a member of the ‘Tennis Club Mafia’. Hopefully this won’t dent my plans to get to some other clubs like kendo, art, volleyball and table tennis in the near future.

The rest of the school week was spent befriending the teachers as classes were light on due to exams. I think the teachers are realising one by one that I have an honest love of Japanese culture and that I am willing to embrace it and try everything at least once! I had a conversation with Shiba Sensei and I told him I was wanting to sit the Japanese proficiency exam…the next day he came in bearing a gift of Japanese sweet biscuits for me! My street cred also improves every day that I eat the school lunch too…with chopsticks. The teachers have developed a keen respect for me as I scoff down everything served up to me…when half the time they don’t even know what it is we are eating!

Friday night brought with it a chance to let off some steam and try my hand at Taiko…Japanese drumming. Those that know me well know that I can’t play any musical instrument to save my life. So understandably I went into the class with some trepidation…trying to channel some Dave Grohl, circa Nirvana days. Much to my surprise and delight I have more rhythm than I give myself credit for and had great fun thumping the life out of the big drums with the other ALTs in the area.


Sadly my school week extended to Saturday as it was parent’s day at Omiya Junior High School. I should have seen it as an omen when I awoke to snow outside…this was not going to be a good day. Silvy (my trusty nana bike) and I trudged off to school in the snow and after feeling returned to my extremities I was informed that I would be participating in a demonstration English class for the parents. Now this in itself was a terrifying thought only two weeks into this teaching gig. Now add to the equation that the lesson was to be with the 1st year students who can barely speak any English. Compounded with the fact that the 1st year JTE is fresh out of university and is even more scared of being up in front of those kids than what I am, it was bound to be an ordeal.

I was told by Kurosawa Sensei five minutes before the lesson that we would be teaching phonics (a-a-ant, b-b-ball for those of you playing at home). Not too scary a thought…until you find yourself trying to describe the sound for ‘x’ with ‘box’ as your sample word…in front of 34 terrified children and the watchful eyes of their parents at the back of the classroom! Kurosawa Sensei and I battled through and I made a mad dash for the teachers’ room as soon as class was over to hang my head in shame. From now on I am reading the textbooks at least five lessons in advance…just in case.

After the torment of PTA day I got to relish in social activities with my favourite English speaking ALT counterparts. First up was dinner and karaoke in Mito to celebrate Sam’s birthday…oh what fun! Considering that before I moved here I abhorred the thought of karaoke, my first Japanese experience of the sport (yes, after Saturday night, I consider it a sport) was unreal! Perhaps it was the awesomely bad film clips that accompany the tunes or the freedom of belting out tacky 80’s numbers at the top of your lungs in a small smokey room with 11 others? Whatever the reason, we left Mito in the wee hours of the morning with sore throats but feeling very satisfied indeed.

Last night was a little more sedate as past and present Hitachiomiya ALTs gathered to farewell one of it’s own, Lisa…who is off on another adventure in China. Another trip to Mito for Izakaya (all you can eat/drink) but thankfully an early night after the Karaoke antics on Saturday!

I wrapped up my weekend today by road tripping with JJ to a nearby shrine and scoping out the local gym. I use the term ‘gym’ loosely here as it is probably twice the size of my shoebox (apartment) and feels more like somebody’s home set up in their garage. To counteract the claustrophobia I felt afterwards I went for a run out of town amongst the rice paddies…