Monthly Archives: February 2011

Praise Me Like You Should

Praise defines us. It’s not the only thing that defines us certainly, but it is a rather large variable in the process that shapes our personalities. If people you respect, praise you about the same thing again and again, and if you didn’t believe it in the first place, then it’s likely you’ll begin to believe it after you hear it a couple of times. Praise makes people more confident, and that in turn makes people better at what they do because they approach it without apprehension (either that or they become arrogant/deluded!). Whatever the outcome, other peoples’ opinions of ourselves invariably have an effect on who we are, and how we view ourselves.

Many businesses and managers in the UK learnt this a long time ago, and any good manager who maintains respect from his/her underlings will dish out praise as and when it’s due. Good companies will reward their employees based on their performance, and will further inspire them to do a good job.

Praise in Japan, at least if you are an Assistant Language Teacher anyway (I can’t vouch for the millions of office workers up and down the country), is difficult to come by. Now this may well just be because I’m doing a crap job, but I hear similar reports from the majority of JETs I meet, and we can’t all be doing a crap job! Not once in the last 7 months have I walked out of a class to have one of my JTEs say to me “well that was ok,” or “not bad”, though in a land where subtlety is king, I could just have missed some feedback glaringly obvious to the trained Japanese eye, but which passes me by like a slippered ant tiptoeing through a cotton wool factory.

Without definite, brash praise, one thing is for sure; I am slowly but surely turning into a complete and utter softie. A couple of weeks ago a student walked out of the class, but stopped just long enough to say “nice lesson” before he disappeared through the door. If he knew how much my heart melted in that moment he probably wouldn’t have said it for fear I might run up and hug him in front of all his friends. The ultimate prize for any teacher is to have their students enjoy (and learn something from) the lesson, but for them to actually express this in words, English words no less, was too much for my brain to handle. It’d had a taste of the praise it had crazed for so long, and now, it wanted more.

I woke up in the same way yesterday morning as I do every morning; shivering, cursing Japan for its lack of natural gas and insulation, and cursing myself for not ironing a shirt or doing the washing up the night before. Beneath the cold and the cursing though was something I hadn’t felt for a while. NERVES. I was nervous about the 2 lessons I had scheduled. I think this was a combination of the fact that it was my last lesson of the school year with both classes, and that I had only prepared the plan the night before and hence, still had to do all the photocopies and discuss it with the JTE before the lesson started at 08:35. Nevertheless, I managed it, and made my way Homeroom 12. The next part is written from the point-of-view of one of my front-row students:

They walked into the lesson as they always do; Bobby took the podium and Ms. Kobayashi stood near the door, and we all stood up and went through the motions. Good morning, how are you, blah blah blah. We say “sleepy” and he laughs, then we get on with the lesson; business as usual; except this time he proceeded to tell us that it was his last lesson with us today. I mean, duh, we know; what do you expect us to do? Break down and cry? Emit a few sarcastic “ahhhhh”s? Grab your coat-tails and beg you to do an extra lesson? Fat chance Bobby-boy. What did we do? Nothing. Most of us just sat there in silence and a few of them cheered. He laughed it off so he can’t have been that bothered; we just got on with the lesson which, by the way, was excellent [don’t push it – Ed].

It was all going fine until the end. We’d finished reviewing all the lessons from this term and there were five minutes to spare, so Bobby wrote “pleasure” on the board and asked us what it meant. No-one knew so one of the class looked it up in the dictionary and announced it to everyone else. After that, he came forward and leant on the podium. All I could think was “no, please don’t, think of your dignity” but he began anyway:

“It has been a pleasure teaching all of you. I won’t get to teach you next year so I wanted to say thank you for all your hard work, and good luck in the test.”

Now this would have been fine if it was in Japanese, but it was in English so he had to say it really slowly and repeat certain bits to make sure everyone understood, all the while smiling like a love-sick puppy. It just made him look really earnest and pathetic, and I couldn’t help but start sniggering. I think he saw me, because he started to turn a dark shade of red. He proceeded to fake cry for a second, and then went completely deadpan as if to say “over it”, which won back a few of the students, but for me, that was it. I turned around, bent over, and pretended to be sick in my friend’s lap.

To that boy, I will forever be a laughing stock, but at least by catching him giggling and fake-puking I was able to realise how nauseatingly soft I was being, and have resolved not to repeat the episode in my next review lesson. Take note: Fishing for compliments from students is not becoming of a teacher.

Snow Place Like It

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening,
A beautiful sight,
We’re happy tonight,
Walking in a winter wonderland.

I know, right? What sort of heartless, sick person would start a blog with the words to a Christmas song in February? We’ve had Christmas, thank you very much, and we’ve heard that particular song in every M&S elevator in the country while we were picking up socks for Grandad and personally swearing to run amok and destroy the whole shop if Cliff Richard came on next.

I happen to have a very good reason for this rather massive faux pas though. That reason is Sapporo; a wonderful, exciting, food-lover’s haven of a city carpeted in fluffy white snow and, at this time of the year, loaded with ice and snow sculptures. It was on a sunny, bright Friday morning that I found myself trotting around the city on my own, humming, whistling and at points, shamelessly belting out “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” whilst I happily took pictures and wished I’d requested the place as my home on the JET application form. Yes, it really is that good.

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Sapporo is situated on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, right about where the little snowflake is above. It is famous for Sapporo beer, excellent sea food, “soup curry”, the best ramen in Japan and the Sapporo Snow Festival held every year in February. You have to use the words “famous for” very carefully in Japan because every single place is “famous for” something. The things I’ve listed above are actually legitimate reasons for somewhere to be famous but, usually, they’ll take a common Japanese dish, do something ever-so-slightly different to it, and then sit back and watch while everyone bangs on about it being the thing you simply have to try while you’re there. Sapporo’s so great that it shouldn’t need a “famous for” to promote its image, but it’s got one anyway; Butter Corn Ramen. “What’s that?” I hear you say. Well it’s ramen, with some corn and a knob of butter thrown in.

We left Shizuoka at 2AM on Thursday morning, got to Haneda Airport, Tokyo at 6ish, then arrived in Sapporo at 8:30. The moment I walked out of Sapporo Central Station I knew I was going to fall in love with the place; big, wide open spaces, tall modern buildings, the hustle and bustle of the big city, lights, noise, excitement. We spent the morning looking around a couple of the sculptures, buying meat on a stick and taking photos, and then checked into the hotel for a nap before venturing out to Ramen Alley to try some of this famous Butter Corn Ramen and coming to the unanimous conclusion that it tasted corny, and buttery, but decidedly average as far as ramen goes. You see, ramen is all about the stock. You can add whatever the hell you like on top, but if you don’t have a delicious, unique, tasty stock then the noodles wont taste as good when you slurp them up, the meat wont taste as good when you give it a little dip and, most importantly, you won’t feel compelled to pick up the bowl at the end and drink it dry; the sign of a good bowl. Shops are famous for ramen, not places, and don’t you ever try to convince me otherwise again, Japan, or I’ll take you to England and say that London is famous for Fish and Chips, but with Cranberry Sauce instead of ketchup or Tartare.

That evening we met up with some of the Usual Shizpects at a tiny, see-through tent in the middle of a street where they were selling some fantastic mulled wine (further enhancing my desire to sing Christmas carols at outrageously high volumes), and entertaining us with impromptu opera singers who seemingly came from nowhere. After that, we went to a cocktail bar with flaring bartenders, Jenga and a NES provided for the patrons’ amusement, before walking home and investigating the park opposite the hotel, dotted with snow sculptures and beautifully lit with soft yellow light.

The next day I was up early for my aforementioned trot around the city blocks and the park near the hotel. T, Sophie and Monica slowly emerged from the hotel and a snowball fight was inevitable. Travis called to announce his impending arrival and differences were put aside as ammunition was stock-piled and a snow-penis was readied for launch. Cue his arrival, and Operation White Death was born as snowball after snowball was launched over a strategically placed hill and the snow-penis narrowly missed an innocent old lady as she walked, nonplussed into nomansland. Travis fought back with vigour, but his puny stockpile of one meant that he had to make ammunition on-the-fly, and he was ultimately defeated.

Commonwealth 1 – America 0.

After a bit of Snow Pigeon Shooting we finally relented and agreed that we should go out and indulge in some of life’s more cultured pursuits, namely looking at hundreds of beautiful snow and ice sculptures and eating more meat-on-a-stick, as well as probably the best Soup Curry in Sapporo. There are three main sites at the Snow Festival; Susukino, containing many of the smaller ice sculptures and the opera tent; Odori, the bad-ass site containing all the 30ft snow sculptures and covering 12 city blocks; Tsudome, the kids’ area with ice slides, yet more sculptures, and snow rafting, amongst other things. We didn’t make it to Tsudome since most of our time was spent gawking at life-size snow temples and Mario brothers.

The finale to all this excitement was a meat & beer-fest known as the Sapporo Bier Garten. We paid 3000 yen (about £22) for as much lamb as we could eat and as much beer as we could drink in two hours. Mayhem ensued. Orders of “14 pints of beer” were not uncommon, there were 2 beer boat races, a beer glass tower, meat babies everywhere, men dropping their pants, and the non-consensual downing of half a pint of beer by an on-duty Japanese staff member. Gaijin Invasion; Gaijin Smash; whatever you want to call it, I’m pretty sure the staff were not quite sure how they were supposed to handle it. A good time was had by all, and it was a beautiful finale to a beautiful getaway. All I could think as we left the next morning, was how all I wanted to do was stay there.

No Place for Pros and Cons

If The Sun newspaper deemed me worthy enough to grace their pages then recent events would probably herald the following headlines:

“JTE’S THREAT OF ‘NO ALT’ SILENCES CLASS”

“STUDENT PARTICIPATION IMPROVES TENFOLD”

“JAPANESE BOY EXPRESSES OPINION”

“NEW, EXCLUSIVE UP-SKIRT SHOTS OF BOBBY GETTING OUT OF LIMO”

With a backdrop as positive as this, it may come as something of a shock to learn that I am only staying until August this year. After being presented with a choice in November and having had a whole 3 months to think about it, I finally came to a grudging conclusion last week. It has been quite the rollercoaster ride let me tell you, and if deciding to come to Japan to teach English was one of the easiest decisions in my life, then deciding whether or not to stay here for another 18 months has certainly been the most difficult.

I hate umming and ahhing over things. For something important I like to spend a day or three, maximum, thinking about it and then make one, final decision at the end. No going back, stick with the hand you played, make your bed and lie in it, you reap what you sow, etc, etc. This one nearly killed me. Maria said she felt like Stretch Armstrong, if you can imagine the poor bastard stretched across the entire world with an agglomeration of people, jobs, concepts and bank accounts pulling at either end. The trouble is that life changes so rapidly over here; one week I’m on top of the world, bowling into lessons, gathering laughs and “AHHH! I SEEEEEE!” realisations from pupils like they were scotch eggs (yeah, I like them more than sweets, ok?); it’s the most rewarding job in the world and I can’t stop thinking that I love Japan. The next week, I don’t really fancy going to work, I whinge about the cold, eat bad food, drink too much on the weekend and spend the whole of Sunday with the fears, dreading having to go back to work the next day. Oh, but I still can’t stop thinking that I love Japan.

Wipe that sick off your face and listen. This place is amazing; I love the people, I love the culture, the food, the weather (I’ve nearly forgotten what rain is like – Brits, take note), the air of respect for everyone, the language… Last week I joined a gym without any help from a Japanese speaker and understood most of what the lady said, albeit with a little charades thrown in. Compare this to a week after I arrived, when I was too scared to go to the local shop and buy a stamp. Soon I’ll be as buff as Arnold Schwarzenegger after a 6-hour workout and a shoe-shine, and I’ll owe it all to my Japanese language abilities.

With all this going on in Japan then, there must be some pretty big draws at home, right? Well, no, not really. England is cold, dark, wet and dreary at the moment. It is crawling its way out of a pit of recession with a Liberal-Conservative (honestly, I’ve never seen two more-contradictory terms connected with a hyphen) government strangling its public services and raising taxes, and its job market is flooded with unqualified students struggling to compete in a market where over-qualified redundancy victims are taking under-paid jobs. Mind you, this won’t be a problem soon since no-one will be able to afford to go to university anyway.

Ahem.

I’ve had to make this a totally selfish decision and rule my friends out. They’ll understand. What’s left then? The social life for one thing. Yes I have a great bunch of friends here, but we’re all JETs, surfing together on top of the Japanese social bubble with each of us only occasionally daring to dive in and see how long we can hold our breath amongst the fishes. Only very few of us (mainly those who can speak the language fluently) ever truly integrate with Japanese society. Back in England I’m a part of that bubble, and it’s little things I miss; the chats about the weather, the small talk with the shop keepers, the banter with random strangers in pubs… Ok I know, you’re right, that’s a mad reason to go back for.

The real, main reason for leaving is this: Teaching English is and always was an experience for me rather than a new career path. I can choose to ride that experience for one year or many but at some point I’ve got to go back to real life, and I want to do that when I’m on a high rather than wait until I’ve exhausted all the good times, and all the things I can learn from the job. As well, unlike a lot of these young whipper-snappers, I’m hitting 28 this year and if I don’t get off the first rung of the career ladder soon then I feel like I might never do so.

Come August I’ll probably be dying to stay, but at least that way I can ensure that I’ll come back and visit in future.