Picture This…

Yes, I know…long time no post. I’ve been home in Australia for three and a half months now and paperdoll has taken a backseat to the adventures of resettling back into life here. I admit it…and I apologise. What can I say? I love being home and every time I sit down to write paperdoll I get distracted by…well…everything.

Having said that, lately the first signs I may be missing Japan have crept in (natsukashi)…it started with a craving for ramen…then there was an emotional reaction to a letter from one of my past students…and let’s not forget that living with my parents again has me pining for my 42m² Japanese apartment. Every. Single. Day.

Yes, I have begun to miss Japan and all of it’s crazy, quirky ways. But much like A Picture Says a Thousand Kanji, when I am missing Japan and need a fix, I can just picture this

Sleeping in Japan

Japanese student letter

English signage in Japan

Japanese dessert



Takeout menu

Japanese antenna

Japanese fashion

Japanese Kit KatsEnglish sign in Japan

Japanese laundry

English in Japan

Japanese Hello Kitty Mask

Japanese shredder

Japanese Aquarium sign

Japanese glitter suits

Japanese Pepsi flavour

Japaese toilet paper

Japanese Clothing Engrish

Japanese fashion

Funny English in Japan

Japanese Architecture Osaka

Japanese Beauty Products

Japanese giant vegetables

Japanese sign

Train etiquette in Japan

Japanese gift explanation

Japanese fashion

Japanese trinkets

Japanese fashion

English textbook Japan

Japanese ice cream

Japanese toilet slippers

English in Japan

Japanese fashion

Japanese signage

Japanese cars

English in Japan

English in Japan

English in Japan

Japanese fashion

Japanese beauty products

Japanese toilets

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!



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.



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.


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.


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…

Still, Only in Japan…

…are VPL (Visible Panty Lines) acceptable in public…or at all.

…are Lilo & Stitch actually popular.

…are snowmen made of only two parts and not three.

Japanese Snowman

…are people only considered sick if they have a fever.

…are you expected to fully wash yourself before getting into a bath.

…are aprons a fashion statement for housewives.

Still, only in Japan…

…does sock glue need to exist.

Girl's gotta have sock glue...

…do shop assistants yell ‘irashaimase’ (welcome) at you repeatedly throughout the duration of your time in their store.

…do elementary school children raise their hand in the air to cross the road.

…does using your hazard lights give you the ability to break any traffic law without penalty.

The hazards of driving in Japan

…do most houses not have an oven.

…do construction workers warm up before starting work with a stretching routine that resembles the YMCA.

…do people’s car dashboards look like a Disney Store shopfront.

Shoe horn?

Still, only in Japan…

…is playing the pokies/slot machines deemed an enjoyable pastime for people under retirement age.

…is it considered rude not to slurp your noodles/soup/tea/any edible substance.

…is Christmas celebrated with KFC and sponge cake.

KFC Christmas

is dancing illegal.

…is there an irrational fear of bugs.

…is a 2.4km race referred to as a ‘marathon’.

Still, only in Japan…

…can peanuts appear on the school lunch menu at least once a month without a student going into anaphylactic shock or their parents suing the school.

…can a person face jail time if a stranger drinking in the same bar as them gets behind the wheel of his car and breaks the law.

…can you make a sport out of sumo and geisha spotting.

Sumo spotting

Geisha stalking

…can I step out of my front door, walk 100 metres in any direction and find a vending machine.

…can trying to heat your apartment become a game of Russian roulette.

…can you find cleaning products sold in gift sets.

Cleaning gift pack? Oh, yes please!

Still, only in Japan…

…will people send New Years cards, as opposed to Christmas cards.

…will you find people own cars bigger than their apartments.

Giant car

…will the movie title ‘This Means War’ be changed to ‘Black & White’.

…will a cars be given names like ‘moco’…which means ‘booger’ in Spanish.

…will you see teenage boys being more openly affectionate with each other than dating couples.

Still, only in Japan are there so many cultural quirks that I could write this threequel to ‘Only in Japan’ and ‘Again, Only in Japan’

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…

The Daily Grind

It has been one of those weeks, where Japanese life kicked my butt and every day felt like Groundhog Day. I’ve been living here for over two years now and sometimes daily life gets the better of me. It’s not the job…I really enjoy my job (once I learned to ignore the testing ways of the Japanese education system). In fact, my job as an ALT is probably my favourite thing about living in Japan. Well…that and the stationery.

No, it’s not the job…it’s those daily cultural differences that used to amuse me in my first twelve months here. Those things that I used to say ‘wow‘ to…the food, the customs and the people.  Everything that was so different to my home in Australia, and my second home in the UK. In my second year those differences weren’t quite so amusing…and now, in my third and final year, my tolerance for these things has decreased even further. I desire the comforts and familiarity of home a little more these days as I struggle with the daily grind of Japan…

7:00 – Wake up from a night of disrupted sleep with neck and shoulder pain from sleeping on a futon three inches thick.

7:05 – Have breakfast of oats shipped in from America (as oats are rare and expensive in Japan) with full fat, sweetened soy milk (because non-fat/sugar free anything is virtually non existent here).

7:20 – Shower using organic body wash shipped in from Australia (see reason for having oats shipped in).

7:30 – Dress in clothing deemed too tight/short/revealing by Japanese society (the exception being high school girls). Note: The same outfit would be called conservative in Western culture.

7:40 – Brush teeth using toothpaste shipped in from Australia (because Japanese toothpaste doesn’t contain fluoride…and well, if you saw the state of peoples’ teeth here, you wouldn’t use their toothpaste either…).

7:45 – Check Facebook, Hotmail, Twitter and Instagram for signs of life outside of the bubble I live in.

8:05 – Cycle to school, receiving no less than five stares from locals. Stares usually result in some kind of near miss traffic accident…for me and the perpetrator.

8:15 – Arrive at school, to hear no less than three comments from teachers about either my hair, my clothing, how tired I look or asking why I’m not cold (because I am wearing a short sleeved shirt which is too revealing).

8:40 – 12:30 – Have two or three classes with students. Die a little inside every time a student says ‘I’m fine thank you, and you?’. Teach students awkward English from textbooks written by Japanese people.

12:40 – Have lunch with students. Despair at whatever horrible mixture of deep fried mystery meat/seafood salad/bamboo soup combination appears on the lunch tray. Reminisce of the days when I used to eat rice once every six or so months. Receive the usual questions from students: ‘Do you dye your hair?’, ‘Why aren’t you married?’, ‘Do you perm your hair?’, ‘Can you use chopsticks?’, ‘Why are your eyes blue?’.

1:30 – Cleaning time in the teachers’ room…where the tea lady watches and disapproves of my cleaning methods and follows me around, redoing everything after me.

1:50 – 4:00 – No afternoon classes, so Japanese study ensues. Have at least four teachers make comments about my kanji writing ability (despite it looking like chicken scrawl) and compliment me (falsely) on my speaking ability.

4:00 – Cycle home to the same barrage of stares as the morning commute.

4:15 – Go running wearing shorts, polo shirt (with collar popped so locals don’t see my tattoo and assume I am part of the Yakuza), sunglasses and headphones. Get even more stares than the daily commute and will hear from students/teachers tomorrow that I was spotted running, and that I wear shorts when running (because despite the fact I haven’t had any action for a long time, if I wear shorts, I must be promiscuous…).

5:30 – Cycle to the supermarket for dinner supplies. Despair yet again at the depressingly ridiculous cost of fruit and vegetables in this country. ¥128 (AU$1.70) for a single kiwi fruit and ¥597 (AU$7.90) for two apples. Curse Japan’s awful food for my weight gain over the last two years.

6:30 – Attempt to make a meal (without an oven…Japan doesn’t do ovens) using entirely freshish (though not organic) vegetables without a grain of rice in sight.

7:30 – 10:30 – Decompress from the day of Japanese culture with western world TV, talking with friends or family on Skype, writing Paperdoll or reading. All carried out from the discomfort of my apartment floor…given the lack of proper furniture in this country.

With this daily pattern of repeated tediums, I’m surprised it took this long for my Japanese life to feel like Groundhog Day. I crave the simple pleasures of every day Western life all the time now…the ability to buy and eat organic, free range produce…the freedom to wear what I want, when I want without feeling guilty…to live in an apartment with proper furniture which won’t leave me in constant pain…and more than anything else, to have anonymity. Sweet, blissful anonymity.

Less than a year, and all these wondrous things will be mine. Until then, it’s the weekend…so two days’ break from the daily grind to enjoy all the things I do love about my life in Japan…

Riddle Me This…Teacher Me That…

What do you call the only teacher who isn’t introduced at assembly?
Nothing, because no one knows their name.

What do you call the teacher who has more lessons a week than any of their colleagues?

Crowd control.*

What do you call the teacher who isn’t given a set of textbooks to teach from?

A miracle worker.*

What do you call the teacher who doesn’t receive schedules, timetables or isn’t told when school events are taking place?

What do you call the teacher who gets the worst chair at school?

The bottom rung.*

What do you call the only teacher to get waves, smiles and air kisses from the students as they cycle past the teachers’ room?

Students’ pet.*

What do you call the teacher who only buys omiyage from half the trips they go on?

What do you call the only teacher who teaches all the students?


What do you call the only teacher without a computer at school?
A virus risk.*

What do you call the teacher who spends every non-teaching minute in the copy room?
The Laminator.*

What do you call the teacher who isn’t invited on school excursions?

A liability risk.*

What do you call the teacher who gives out presents as a reward in English class?

‘Very, very, very, very beautiful’*

What do you call the teacher who isn’t invited to enkais with the other teachers?
A social leper.*

What do you call the teacher who receives 20 declarations of love a day from their students?

The only blond in a 2km radius.*

What do you call the teacher who actually smells good?

The pheromone emitter.*

What do you call the only teacher who doesn’t own or wear a matching brand tracksuit set to school every day?
Well dressed.*

What do you call the teacher who averages around 1000 photocopies a week?

A lumberjack.*

What do you call the only teacher not asked to participate in emergency evacuation drills?



*Answer may be replaced with ‘Ms.Carla’

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,


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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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’,

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,

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),

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.
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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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.