Saturday, July 4, 2015

Are You One of These Losers Living in Japan?

"Teachers teach and do the world good,
Kings just rule and most are never understood.
If you were to rule or govern a certain industry
everyone inside this room would be in misery ...
No one would get along nor sing a song
cuz everyone'd be singing for the king, am I wrong?"

KRS-1 from his hit song: "My Philosophy"

There's a stigma attached to what I do here in Japan.
That stigma, in a word, is: Loser.
The people who tout this slur are generally the ones here doing something other than teaching English, a profession that presumably required more than a University degree, a passport from an English speaking country and a heartbeat to break into. Or they are among the professional educators living here who, in addition to the above basic requirements, are also in possession of a manifest love and abiding respect for the profession of teaching, evidenced by the sacrifices they've made to obtain various advanced degrees and teaching certifications.
I'd counter, it's all a matter of perspective, though.
Where I come from, a University degree and the wherewithal to leave your family, friends and presumably some semblance of a life behind to begin another in a very foreign land, are rarely found in a "loser's" portfolio.
I could also argue that a portfolio that contains outrageous student loans that take years (and tears) to repay for an overrated University education that says little more about who you really are than that you subscribe in part to the meritocracy, and that you have the capacity to take on somewhat challenging tasks and complete them, certainly doesn't scream "winner."
I prefer to think of myself as neither a loser nor a winner. I'm just a man on a path, and that path has lead me to Asia. And if I can manage to stay on it and keep pushing, it will, without a doubt, take me wherever I need to go.
Without a doubt!
However, while I'm here in Japan, with my degree, my Visa, and my heartbeat intact, I've got things to learn...and, apparently, to teach, as well.
I didn't always feel this way, though.
I came here with my mind open and my hand out, ready to receive what Japan had to offer or, if necessary, take what I needed and disregard the rest. They'd have my body, time and energy in exchange, which I felt to be a decent bargain. But, like those European pirates of old, I had my eyes on the prize. I came here seeking riches.
Not money or precious metals and stones, though. Nor was the booty of my ambition on some Japanese girl's backside. My booty was ethereal. I came for inspiration, for experience, for knowledge, for rich material and colorful characters to paint the pages of the books I intend to write. I didn't want to ensnare and enslave the natives. I just wanted to use them as my muse.
I was on a mission to find seeds of intangibility to take back to my own world and nurture into something uncommonly useful, something that could inspire real change.
My initial job, that English teaching gig with NOVA? It was just a means to an end, a way to finance my expedition in Asia. I did what was required, sometimes more and sometimes less. But, always with my needs and goals in the forefront of my mind. Never the students'. Never
Then, I came to work at a Junior high school in Yokohama, and everything changed.
You see, while I was teaching with NOVA, the majority of my students were adults, brimming with bullshit, misinformation and preconceptions just pouring out of their mouths in an endless flow of foolishness. I had little hope of swaying these people positively, and to be honest, a diminishing desire to even make the effort it would take to do so. My motivation to be around them was more research oriented. And, from all appearances, for the most part, so was theirs. I'd venture half of the students were there to simply meet and chat with foreigners in a controlled (safe) environment. But me, I was like one of the crew of the USS Enterprise, with my own personal Prime Directive: interact but avoid interfering; rules I would bend but rarely broke.
But this was not the case in Junior high school. The entire dynamic changed, and that change impacted me in ways I had no way of foreseeing. My Prime Directive flew right out the portal. My new clientele wouldn't have it any other way.
In public schools, as much as parents, teachers and administrators like to make out like they run the show, the kids -some consciously while others obliviously- know it's their show.
I'd never been a big fan of kids. To be honest, they scared me. I was always pretty good with other people's kids, for I'm practically (at least until I came here) a big kid myself. Any of my friends will tell you the same. But, I remain childless for a reason. I never wanted the responsibility of teaching a child to do something I was still struggling to do myself. That is, make its way in this crazy ass world. With all the stuff going through my heart and head at any given time, I really felt like I would fuck a child's mind up, and how!
But I learned something crucial about myself one day on the train, ironically.
It was after I had been teaching for a couple of years in the public school system, I was riding the train to work, enduring the usual obscenities from my fellow strap-hangers. It was bone of "those days", a particularly rough morning. A man had actually fled away from "foreignness."
I was standing there trying to regain my composure when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I spun around with hate in my heart only to find myself face to face with a very cute girl. It took me a moment or two to pull myself together. I must have been a bizarre sight but she showed no sign of recognizing this transformation from a man bitter enough to put his fist through a wall to a person curious about why he'd been tapped.
"Yes?" I said, searching her face for something familiar. She was about 20 or so, dressed like a college student, kawaii-ness laced with a burgeoning sexuality. Think a cross between Minnie Mouse and Miss Piggy. But, no identifying features jumped out at me.
She noticed and was taken aback a bit, but not much.
"You don't remember me, maybe, " she said kindly. "I was your student at NOVA three years ago. I am Mika Tanaka!"
I was about to pretend to remember her by name, I felt so bad, but I didn't.
"Sorry, I don't...?"
"No, no, no...I know you must have many students. Please don't worry about that..."
"Well, still, I..." and then I realized we were speaking in English. She sounded like she'd lived abroad. "Mika, is it? Well, it's nice to see you again."
We smiled at each other awkwardly. More than half the eyes in the vicinity were on her, I noticed with a glance. She seemed either unaware or totally comfortable with being the center of attention in a subway car.
"Your English is wow!" I said. using one of the Japanese icebreakers I've unconsciously picked up over the years: Say something complimentary.
"No, no, it's still poor..." she said, blushing. "I am studying English in University, now. "
"That's great...I'm happy for you," I said. "You must have some great teachers cuz..."
"You were the best one!"
"Thanks," I said. Just as I've picked up the custom of flattery, I've also learned to take all Japanese flattery with a grain of salt. They're literally just being nice most of the time. "Just doing my job."
"I remember you told me that to speak in English well, grammar is important but not most top important. You said confidence is equal important. You said that if I want to be great speaker I should not afraid to speak.."
"Wow, you have a good memory!"
"Oh yes, I remember everything you teached...taught me! And I do what you said...everything!"
That's when I started feeling nervous.
People listening to me is one thing. People taking my advice is another thing. But, people remembering everything I said, word for word, and following my instructions, when I know I'm prone to go off on tangents? Especially back in my NOVA days when I really didn't care much whether students learned the nonsense NOVA used to have us teach? And where sometimes I used to just run off at the mouth just to pass the time?
This is quite another thing!
"You told me to make foreign friends. My boyfriend is very nice black guy from California. I met him when I was student in America...I didn't hangout with Japanese people only in California, just like you told me. I hang out with only foreigners and speak...spoke only in English. My boyfriend will move to Japan next year..."
She went on to list several things I told her that had helped her to not only become a better English speaker but, as she explained it, " help to give me a happy life! I always want to see you and to say thank you. I went back to NOVA when I come back from the US but they said you quitted."
"I teach at a junior high school in Yokohama now," I said, still a little overwhelmed by Mika, and disappointed that I couldn't remember her at all. Maybe because she wasn't the same person she was when I'd taught her, I told myself.
"Your students are very lucky! They have the best teacher!"
"Thank you," I said, feeling like some popular retiring educator receiving accolades from the student body. A verbal gold watch.
"Oh, this is my station!" She gave me a curious smile, then rushed at me, embracing me in a hug that could only come from the heart, and planted a kiss on my cheek. When she released me she looked like she wanted to say more. But, instead she just got off the train and stood waving at me from the platform, almost in tears.
While I waved back I noticed how many people in the area were observing this exchange with fascination.
The guy who'd fled to the next car would have benefited, I thought.
I did.
I learned from that brief exchange with a former student that I had the power to do something impactful here. And that through teaching, like KRS-1 once said, I could do the world good.

Still think I'm a loser? Well, you're entitled.
But, I beg to differ. (-;