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Let's play 'Spot The Gaijin'

For the second installment of my interview series about teaching in Asia, I sat down with my friend Nino. Nino and I both attended Boston University and shared several Japanese classes with each other. Since I always thought he was much too cool and good-looking to talk to, I actually didn’t get to know him until the Spring semester of my Junior year. So, I am definitely glad that a fortuitously placed copy of Karl Friday’s Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan led to a conversation with him – he is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met and his knowledge of Japanese history is astounding. I can honestly say that he knows far more about samurai history than I ever will. Nino graduated from BU in 2009 with a degree in East Asian Studies and a concentration in Japanese. He has been teaching English in Japan since January 2010, first in Ishinomaki and later in Sendai City.

Constantine: So, why did you want to teach abroad?

Nino: Sadly the answer to this is more for the selfish reason of pursuing my own interest in Japanese history than anything else. Though, I do find teaching to be a fulfilling job, especially when you notice how much the student has learned. But, initially my passion for Japanese history is what brought me here; considering there’s no better place to study the history of a country than in that country itself.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in Japanese history?

Nino: Damned if I know. I first became interested in middle school… I have always been quite the nerd. The answer I usually tell people is Shogun by James Clavell. But, as an academic, admitting Shogun was my inspiration is actually sort of embarrassing – considering it’s such a bastardization and romanticized version of history – even if it was written as fiction. But in any case, I read it in middle school and knowing it was based on history got me interested to learn the actual history. I had always been familiar with samurai just from the general fantasy genre (which might often blend Eastern and Western mythologies or histories together) but after reading Shogun, it was the first time I actually began to pursue an academic interest.

Constantine: Shogun was actually something that sparked my interest in Japan as well. I read it at around the same age you did.

Nino: Yeah, I hate admitting it, but that’s what did it.

Constantine: It’s better than Sailor Moon.

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Which one of these things is not like the other?

I was recently asked to answer a few questions for the new website iShare-Japan about my experiences since I have moved to Japan. As some of you know, I have lived in Japan for almost a year; my so-called ‘Japaniversary’ will be on August 3rd. That’s no where near long enough to have developed a deeply nuanced understanding of Japanese culture (years of research on the country notwithstanding). I found this the most difficult question to answer: “What are some of the worst things about living in Japan?”

My mood routinely fluctuates between obscene love for Japan, disbelief that I am actually living here, and irrational frustration towards everything Japanese. The truth of the matter, though, is that living in Japan is now my daily life. That makes it difficult to identify if the problems I encounter are unique to my geographical/cultural location or merely representations of the difficulties everyone encounters from continuing to breathe.

Upon closer examination, I realized that there is a very easy way to depict the challenges I have faced since coming to Japan.

I am going to tell you something about myself that is readily apparent to anyone with eyes: I have been lucky enough to live a privileged life (and continue to do so). I come from an upper-middle class background, I attended a respected private university in the East Coast, and I conform to nearly every societal beauty standard without much difficulty – I am not fat, I am tall, I maintain a decent standard of athleticism, I have blonde hair, blues eyes, and, above all, I AM WHITE. In truth, the only institutionalized difficulty I may have faced in America is that I am female. And let’s face it, gender is less of an obstacle in America than most places in the world. That said, I’d also like to point out that the rest of the blog will be draw from my personal experiences, which are influenced by my privileged background. I cannot speak for anyone but myself.

What I’m getting at is that I have come from a culture of white privilege. Feminist writer Peggy McIntosh has written about the subject of white privilege extensively, and I will draw from her essay on the subject throughout this blog. She accurately sums up my life in America as such;

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a patter of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.

When I moved to Japan, the privilege that I unconsciously lived with for my entire life was thrown out the window. I moved from being a member of ‘the dominant cultural form’ to being a minority. This will happen to everyone who moves to Japan who is not Japanese. Most of the complaints I hear from foreigners about living in Japan are directly related to this.

Peggy McIntosh outlines a list of 50 Daily Effects of White Privilege. All of these will be reversed when you move to Japan. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:

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Phil and I rock climbing back in 2008

Phil and I rock climbing back in 2008

I sat down with my friend Phil to talk with him about his experiences teaching English in rural Henan, China.  Phil has been an English teacher at Xuchang University since October 2009. However, his experiences in China reach far back – from a brief month teaching in Xi’an, Shaan’xi during college to an abortive attempt to teach in Harbin. In 2007, Phil graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a BA in History, with a focus on China. He also spent two of those years ‘attempting’ to study Chinese, which in Phil’s case meant routinely getting drunk with our Taiwanese-American friend Benson. As a bit of a disclaimer, I’d like to say that Phil is one of the few truly unique people that I have met in my life. I like to describe his life philosophy as, “If this isn’t going to make an interesting story, then it’s not worth my time.” (A description that he, undoubtedly, would find not completely accurate) Needless to say, Phil lives his life with a certain reckless courage that most of us are too meek to attempt. This interview is just like Phil – colorful, off-beat, and controversial – and I’m sure some readers will disagree with it. But if you don’t keep things interesting, then what’s the point? You can read Phil’s blog here:

Constantine: Why did you want to teach abroad?

Henan, China - Phil's current location

Phil: Because I was tired of the life I had at home! [laughs] No, honestly, after a great deal of introspection provided by the copious free time of this job [teaching English], I’ve realized that I left Colorado because I was terrified of the ‘failure’ of mundane life. [pause] Seriously, though, Chinese girls have nice bodies.

Constantine: What sparked your interest in China?

Phil: It was Japan, really. After a rough adjustment period in American middle school following my family’s move from Bermuda to America, I found that in high school Japanese animation cartoons provided an interest for me that I could share with other people. So, for all of high school I had a decent enthusiasm for Japanese history and ancient culture, which was almost entirely transferred to China. This gave my interest in China almost a two-year head start.

Constantine: Why did your interest transfer to China?

Phil: In college, I had a course on the combined history of Korea, China, and Japan, that presented events in a concurrent manner, and I became convinced, by my admittedly Chinese professor, that a great deal of the Japanese culture that I had idealized in my high-school fashion had in fact originated from China. That, combined with the general impression that China was the next major ‘horse to bet on’ as far as World Powers were concerned, allowed me to develop an intense interest in China.

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It’s February, which means that the Japanese school year is nearing an end. Last week, I had my final class with my 3 third year Advanced English students. These three boys are a really amazing bunch of kids, I was constantly impressed by their English abilities and interest in Western culture. They all wrote me farewell letters, which were funny and sweet. Here they are:

When I met you first, I just took a rest (lunch-time). Since I was poor at speaking English, probably I think you couldn’t understand it. But you managed to interpret what I said. When I knew you like horror movies, I thought you were a dangerous person. In fact, you are a good teacher. I remembered your making chocolate apples for us. We ate sashimi together in the library didn’t it? I remember well. You may forget us but I would like you to remember that we are your students. Thank you until now. That’s all.

When I first listened to you speak English, it was too fast for me to listen to your English. So it took me long time to make out what you say. But by you speaking English at natural speed, I have brought up my listening ability. This is so good for entrance examinations and my future. And I also had my essays checked by you. When I first had my essay checked, you added a lot of advice to my essay and a lot of English rules on another sheet. I have never had a teacher like you who inquired into it so closely. Thank you much, I sincerely appreciate it. Come to think of it, I regret not having my essays checked since you came here. But what I did makes for me a great deal. You like Japanese so much, and there are many Japanese cultures and many what Japanese made. I would like you to find them. The day will soon come when I learn a lot of your country’s cultures. So I have to study a lot. I hope you will succeed in everything and make your dreams come true. Thank you very much.

When you came to the school, I thought a model maybe came to it at first. When I was taken the first class, I was surprised because you learnt about Japan and Japanese things very well. Then, you showed us your home and the way you live in America. I was impressed with your stories that was different from Japanese ones in scale. The class looked like a party Halloween week was especially interesting. I enjoyed the special apple you made very much. I’m not a good student. I haven’t been what you expected to be. The only half-year has passed since we had met, you made me feel happy and motivated to improve my English. Thank you very much.

Awww, damn these kids, they make me want to cry.

This week is Christmas, so I’ve been teaching Christmas classes. This really just involves me having my students watch a segment from “A Sesame Street Christmas Carol” and baking them gingerbread cookies. (Hey, it’s the last class before winter vacation, if you think you’re going to get the kids to do any work you’re probably suffering from the side effects of a temporal lobotomy.) Most Japanese homes don’t have ovens, so being able to produce homemade cookies makes you a magician on par with Siegfried and Roy. Only without the tigers…and homosexual innuendo. But today was a pretty bizarre day…

First, I had three girl students give me a Christmas present and a homemade Christmas card where they wrote “You baked for us is cookies. Delicious. Please again. Thank you!” That was extremely sweet and touching.

Then, in class I taught the students the word ‘collection.’ For example, “I like Rilakkuma, so I collect Rilakkuma things. I have a Rilakkuma collection.” Then I asked the students if they collect anything. You can always count on boys to say something entertaining and two answers stuck out from the rest:
A) I collect girls. (Uh huh, sure you do.)
B) “I collect ‘good’ movies.” says the student.
“Really? What is the title of one?” I ask.
“Uh…it’s a secret…” says the boy.
“Do you have a hentai video collection?” I ask.
The class bursts into laughter.

Then, we watched two short videos about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. In the videos, everyone is hugging. I explain that hugging is a part of American culture. On the way out of class, a boy student hugs me while his friends (and one of the English teachers) yell “SEKUHARA!” (Sekuhara is the cute Japanese way of saying sexual harassment). Then he ran away. Yeah, I told my students that hugging is ok in America, so I guess I had that one coming…

I also had a boy student say, “I love you” and run out of class. And people say Japanese kids don’t learn anything in school.

Later in the day, I had yet another boy student come up to me and say “Sensei, itsumo kawaii” and run away while his friend stared at me dumbstruck. Japanese high school boys have courage, but they really need to work on their follow through – running away isn’t going to win you a girlfriend.

After work, I had a police officer pull me over for exceeding the speed limit while passing a car (not out of the norm considering the way people drive where I live). But, he just said “Dame desu yo!” and made me promise not to do it again. Then he started talking about how he can’t speak English, but if he had a teacher like me when he was in high school he would have studied a lot harder. I gave him a cookie. Seriously, I gave him a cookie.

Then I went to the office New Year’s Party and gave out more cookies. And won a takoyaki grill in a quiz game because of my freakish knowledge of Japanese history.

Moral of the Story: Cookies is Japan are like volatile magic fairy dust…they both create problems and solve them. Either way, it’s bound to make the day more enterntaining.

My sannensei students sometimes write extremely adorable essays:

My treasure is this charm. This is the charm for entrance examination. When I was a junior high school student, I had a close friend. He was the most intelligent in the school. What he was intelligent was true, but he wasn’t earnest. He would often find fault with others, and he didn’t obey the school regulations. Anyway, he was not warm-hearted. But he was not always cold-hearted. He was kind to me occasionally. Informed of his leaving Oshima after he graduated, I felt bad a little. The graduation ceremony breaks up, he approached me, and gave me this charm. For I have talked with him about the university once. I never dreamed. I was glad to have given me all the more because he was cold-hearted. So this charm is my treasure.

Here are the answers to the questions that were asked to me in my interview and the sample questions I used to prepare for my interview!

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I posted another JET Vlog about my thoughts on the JET Statement of Purpose

Here is my statement of purpose:

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