Thursday, June 28, 2007

Now I just feel dirty

I’ve been swimming with my students every day for the past three weeks. I’m such a fixture at the school’s outdoor pool that the vice-principal unofficially promoted me to “Assistant PE Teacher.”

I love swimming with the kids. It’s just good clean wholesome fun. Or so I thought.

The bubble burst this morning after a conversation with one of the PE teachers.

“The students really enjoy swimming with you,” she said in Japanese. “You make them so happy.”

She said something else that I didn’t quite catch but I thought I understood the meaning behind her words.

“Aw, that’s so sweet,” I said, feeling all warm and fuzzy. “I feel exactly the same way about them.”

She shook her head and laughed. That wasn’t what she meant. She grabbed one of the Japanese English teachers and asked her to translate.

But when the PE teacher told her what she had said and what I had said in response, the Japanese English teacher started laughing hysterically. And then everyone else in the staff room wanted in on the joke and then they started laughing.

After the hilarity died down, the Japanese English teacher finally explained what the PE teacher had said to me.

“The boys said they really enjoy swimming with you because they like seeing you in a swimsuit.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Let's enjoying English!

My students are an endless source of entertainment. They are always saying the most unintentionally hilarious things. Here are just a few gems from the past two weeks:

You are a little shit

I was teaching adjectives to one of the Grade 7 classes. The students were using the adjectives to make basic sentences. For example, “you are friendly” “you are pretty” “you are kind” “you are funny” “you are tall.”

The Japanese teacher asked them to write down three different adjectives to describe one of their friends using the “you are _____” pattern.

I was walking around the classroom correcting their mistakes when one boy called me over to his desk.

“What’s this in English?” he asked, pointing to his hip.

“Hip,” I said.

He looked at me, looked at my hips and said, “You are big hip!”


Flattery gets you everywhere

For some reason, the students at my school go crazy for stickers. They love stickers. They are obsessed with stickers. They fight each other for stickers.

There is nothing more surreal than having a group of the biggest, meanest, angriest, most intimidating teenage boys with shaved eyebrows and spiked hair walk up to you after class and ask for a bunch of teddy bear stickers.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that cute stickers have incredible power and influence over these kids. I amassed a collection of stickers and put them in a file, which I carry around from class to class.

The stickers are supposed to be a reward for participation. But the whole thing has spun out of control. The minute class ends, I am swarmed by aggressive students demanding stickers.

They’re like a pack of vultures swooping in to pick clean my entire sticker collection. They try to rip the file out of my hands. They jump on my back, screaming, “Sticker! Sticker!”

I once made the mistake of letting a group of boys play “rock, paper, scissors” for one of my coveted Canada stickers. The competition got so heated that punches started flying.

The sticker situation escalated from harmless fun into an out-of-control crisis. I had to stage an intervention.

I stood in front of the class and asked the Japanese teacher to translate. I explained that I was no longer going to hand out stickers for no reason. The students had to earn them. If they wanted a sticker, they had to say something in English first.

Without missing a beat, one clever kid yelled out, “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!”


Not far off the mark

The students in one of my classes were talking about their plans for summer vacation yesterday.

I was asking them where they were going this summer and they had to respond by using the sentence structure “I will go to ____.”

Most of the answers were pretty standard (well, except for the one kid who said, “I will go to Sarah-sensei’s apartment.”)

A few kids answered the question by saying, “I will go to USJ.”

USJ is Universal Studios Japan and every Japanese kid I’ve ever met has either gone or dreams of going there. USJ is a huge deal.

One of the kids who answered, “I will go to America” was excited about his upcoming trip. He wanted to know what USA stood for.

“The United States of America,” I told him.

The poor kid looked crestfallen. I had single-handedly ruined his summer vacation.

He had thought USA stood for Universal Studios America.


Aren’t you a little young for that?

In the classroom the other day . . .

Me: “What were you doing at 11 last night?”

Student A: “I was sleeping.”

Student B: “I was watching TV.”

Student C: “I was stripping!”


And your point is?

I was walking down the hallway between classes when two boys yelled out “SEX!” at me.

I backed up and asked them to repeat what they had just said.

“SEX!!!” they cried, even louder this time.

“Would you care to elaborate?” I asked.

They looked at each other, obviously not understanding a single word I said, and ran away.


I’ve created a monster

I was hanging out with the track team after school when one of the kids decided to initiate a conversation with me.

“Sarah-sensei,” he said. “You are from Canada, right?”

“Yes!” I said, delighted with his perfect English.

He narrowed his eyes and looked at me as if I was a complete and utter moron.

“No, no, no!” he said. “Not ‘Yes.’ Yes, I am.”



One of my favourite students came to visit me in the staff room between classes.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked.

I told her I had seven boyfriends.

Her eyes widened.

“Seven boyfriends?!?” she said.

Yup, I replied, and they’re all Japanese.

“What are their names?” she asked.

Shit. I had to think fast. I made up a bunch of names on the spot. Tanaka Jiro, Kato Yuta, Mori Akira.

She looked at me suspiciously. Her eyes kept flicking between me and the Japanese textbook lying open on my desk.

She picked up the textbook and read through some of the dialogues where she found the names of my fictional boyfriends.

“Tanaka Jiro! Kato Yuta! Mori Akira!” she said, flipping through the textbook. “You are liar!”


And the Student of the Year award goes to . . .

I was giving a presentation about my trip to Borneo to one of the Grade 9 classes. I showed the students photos of some of the spectacular national parks. I talked a bit about the natural history of the area and the importance of protecting the Borneo rainforest.

After I had finished, the Japanese teacher asked the class what they thought.

“Isn’t Borneo beautiful?” she asked.

One boy raised his hand. I was surprised to see him volunteering to say something because he never participated in class. He was probably the most quiet and serious student in the entire school. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve even seen him smile once all year.

Anyway, he raised his hand and spoke up in class for the first time ever. In all seriousness and sincerity, he simply said, “I think Sarah-sensei is more beautiful than Borneo.”

Thursday, June 21, 2007


I’m an idiot.

I’ve been kicking myself for a good three months over my decision not to stay in Japan another year.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to do anything about it now. They’ve already found someone to replace me. The paperwork has been drawn up and the contract has been signed. I’m leaving in two months whether I want to or not.

It’s so unfair that I had to make the decision back in February. I couldn’t have been in a worse frame of mind. I was miserably cold and overwhelmingly homesick. I couldn’t imagine signing on for another 18 months.

As much as I loved living here, I just couldn’t seem to shake the loneliness and the isolation. Saying “no” to a second year felt right.

Looking back on it now, I think it felt “right” because it was the easy and safe choice. Deep down I wanted to stay but I chickened out. I was worried that things wouldn’t turn around. I was worried about giving up my career back home. Leaping into the great unknown was a risk I was too scared to take. So I played it safe and I lost.

About a month after I made the decision to leave, things started to get better. I was given a lot more control and responsibility over my classes. I fell in love with the new students. I woke up excited to go to work every morning.

The isolation and loneliness faded as my social life picked up. I made a few good friends. I stopped sucking at volleyball. I signed up for weekly tea ceremony classes. My Japanese improved by leaps and bounds.

It’s taken almost a year to adjust and now I have to leave just when things are starting to get comfortable.

People keep asking me when I’m going back to Canada. I hate talking about it because these conversations always leave me on the verge of tears. I don’t think anyone really knows how much I want to stay.

I haven’t been able to bring myself to tell the students I’m leaving. They’re the main reason I want to stay. Saying goodbye to them is going to kill me.

Last week, one of my favourite kids from the track team asked me if I wanted to sign up for a 5 km race with him in December. I couldn’t tell him I wouldn’t be here in December. I just couldn’t. I would have dissolved into a sobbing mess. So I told him I didn’t know.

I’m not ready to leave. I want to be a part of these kids’ lives a little longer. I want to stick around and see my favourite students grow up and graduate.

I’m dreading the thought of returning to the world of adults and politics and regressive environmental policies. It’s all so Sisyphean. I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. I’d rather be standing in front of a classroom than sitting behind a cubicle.

Although I’ll be happy to see my friends and family again, I’m worried about going back to Vancouver when my heart’s still in Japan. I’m terrified of being miserable and consumed with regret when I get back. Who’s going to want to be around me if I’m like that?

I’m trying to remind myself that I was happy in Vancouver before I left. But it feels forced. I’m not very good at positive thinking. I’m a glass half empty kind of girl. I let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip through my fingers. It’s a tough thing to live with.

I’m an idiot.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Getting paid to swim

As much as I don’t like having my identity tied up with being an outsider, there are times when it comes in handy.

Being a foreigner means I can get away with things Japanese people can’t. Like swimming with the students during school hours, for example.

The school’s outdoor pool finally opened last week and I’d been looking on with envy as the kids swam laps during gym class.

“There’s got to be some way I can join them,” I thought to myself.

I ran the idea past the vice-principal.

“Mmm . . .” he said, sucking air through his teeth. “It’s difficult.”

He polled a few teachers in the staff room. After a few minutes of intense debate, they agreed the head PE teacher would have to make the final decision.

I laughed inwardly. This was way too easy. The head PE teacher was a lecherous lady-killer whose favourite pastime was getting drunk and hitting on me at staff parties.

When the PE teacher walked into the staff room, the vice-principal asked him if it would be okay if I swam with the students.

He raked his eyes up and down my body and said something in Japanese that sounded like, “HELL YEAH!”

The students’ reaction was equally priceless. The first time I showed up on deck, I was greeted with a loud cry of “Eeeeeeeeeeh!” (which is basically the Japanese equivalent of “WTF!”)

One student spelled it out for me in English afterward.

“You come,” she said. “We surprise.”

Swimming with the kids during school hours is awesome. We warm up for about 10 minutes and then do some 25-metre sprints. After that, it usually deteriorates into handstands and synchronized swimming and competitions to see who can hold their breath underwater the longest.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling the PE teacher I once held the provincial record for the 200-metre butterfly. As a result, he now ends every class by making the students line up and take turns racing one length of butterfly against me. By about the sixth kid, my arms are ready to fall off.

Still, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on the job. Sometimes it’s good to be a foreigner.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Best kids ever

These are my favourite students in the whole school. They’re the stars of the track team and just about the happiest kids around.

I took this picture yesterday after the prefectural track and field championships. Our school placed first, which isn’t surprising considering these kids train every day, twice a day.

The whole day was amazing. In fact, it was probably one of the best days I’ve had here so far. I didn’t even mind waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning to catch the rented coach bus that took us out to the sports park.

The kids had asked me to come with them since I’m an honorary member of the track team (I run with them once a week after school). So I spent the day watching their races and cheering them on until my voice was hoarse.

I was so touched by how excited they were to have me there. They wanted to make sure that I saw each of their races. After the 100-metre sprint, one boy came running up to me with wild hope written all over his face and said, “Did you see me? Did you see me?”

I felt like a proud parent bursting with happiness.

In between events, they practiced their hilariously bad English on me and just acted like the happy, dorky kids they are.

It’s funny because I came to Japan for an adventure and a break from my “real” life. I didn’t have any passion to be a teacher. It was just a way to pay for a yearlong vacation. But being surrounded by these kids all day has turned out to be the most rewarding part of my time here. I’ve been blown away by the amount of joy they’ve brought into my life. I just want to adopt the whole lot of them.

Seriously. Could these girls be any cuter?

After the day was over and the trophies were handed out, the students formed a circle around the coach. I was standing off to the side taking pictures when they waved me over to join them.

They asked me to make a speech. So I told them how amazing they were and how much fun I had watching their races. And then I told them I loved them. They smiled and clapped and laughed and I knew that they loved me a little bit too.

My heart is breaking at the thought of leaving them in two months. Saying goodbye to these kids is going to hurt so much. I am sick with regret right now for not signing on for a second year.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

My favourite Japanese TV show

I don’t watch a lot of TV out here. I only get two channels and my choices are usually limited to baseball, sumo or one of those mind-numbing variety shows (and sometimes, if I’m really lucky, Full House dubbed in Japanese).

But there’s one show I’m completely addicted to. It’s probably the most low-budget thing on television. There are no actors, no special effects and no complicated plotlines.

The show always begins the same brilliantly simple way. The host stands in a room that has nothing in it but a huge map of Japan. He stands about 15 feet back from the map and throws a dart at it. Then he and a friend rush over to the map, pull out their atlases and pinpoint the exact location where the dart landed.

Thanks to the magic of television, the dart almost always lands on some small town in the middle of nowhere. This is when the real fun begins. The host and his sidekick pack their bags and fly out to the town armed with little more than a video camera and a sense of humour.

Once they arrive, they simply drive around looking for unsuspecting locals to ambush. Whenever they find someone doing something outside (usually a grandmother working in a rice field), they jump out of the car and start interviewing them. The victim is usually bewildered at first but the host is so charming and funny he has them laughing and relaxed in no time.

This leads to all sorts of adventures. Sometimes an interview will turn into an invitation into someone’s home for lunch. Or they’ll stop to speak to a guy cleaning a boat and the next thing you know they’re on the open ocean trawling for fish. Or they’ll stumble across a group of kids playing drums in a garage and end up taking part in an impromptu concert later that night.

The show gives us a glimpse into small-town Japan and the people who live there. It’s spliced with interesting facts about the local history, population, economy and culture. It’s also hilariously funny (which is saying a lot considering I can only understand half of what’s being said).

I’d love to produce a Canadian version of this show. Canada’s so big and we have so many small towns. This is the kind of show that could bring us a little closer together. I mean, how many of us really know anything about Dildo, Newfoundland? Or Faro, Yukon? Or Kamsack, Saskatchewan?

I’m curious about each of these places. What are they like? Who lives there? What do they do? Each of these towns must be overflowing with stories and quirky characters.

I’m toying with the idea of pitching this to the CBC when I get back but I have no idea where to begin. I suppose I should figure out if this is even worth pursuing in the first place. Would a Canadian version of this show work? Or would it be better as a 10-minute segment on a show like The Hour? Would it be something people would want to watch? Or is this just a case of me having too much time on my hands out here?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Culture shock

When I first arrived in Japan, I remember feeling like it wasn’t all that different from Canada. It was clean, quiet, safe, friendly, polite and even a little boring.

I wandered around the streets of Tokyo thinking, “Culture shock? What culture shock? How could you possibly have culture shock in a place like Japan?”

And while it’s true that Japan doesn’t deliver the same blow to the senses that a place like India does, it’s a fallacy to think moving to a developed country means you’re immune to the effects of culture shock.

It’s a different kind of culture shock. It creeps up on you little by little, day by day, until you begin to realize that underneath the layers of politeness and efficiency and modernity lies a culture very different from your own. It hits you that as much as you try to fit in, you never really will. You are an outsider living on the fringes of a world that you are part of but don’t really belong to.

That’s not to say Japanese people are hostile to foreigners. Just the opposite. I’ve been shown so much kindness and generosity during the past 10 months here. Almost everyone in this town has had me over for dinner at least once. My coworkers are always inviting me out for drinks. I have lots of friends, I take tea ceremony lessons, I’m on a volleyball team. I have an apartment, a job and a life here. I’ve been welcomed into the community with open arms.

And yet there are days I still feel completely isolated and alone. Part of the problem is the language barrier. I’ve been studying Japanese two hours a day, five days a week, for almost a year now. I’ve gotten to the point where I can hold basic conversations but I can’t really communicate. Especially when so much of what is said goes unspoken.

So I sit at my desk in the staff room surrounded by people I can’t understand and who can’t understand me. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a bubble.

The hardest part is when someone in the office cracks a joke and everyone starts laughing. I know they’re not intentionally leaving me out. I think they genuinely forget that I don’t always understand what they’re saying. But every time it happens, a little stab of loneliness pricks my skin.

There are so many little things that seem to highlight the distance between us. Every morning I am greeted by the daily schedule written on the blackboard at the front of the staff room:

Unless I ask someone to translate it for me, I usually have no idea what’s going on. And so I’ll show up to school to find everyone in grubby clothes because I couldn’t read the notice on the blackboard that said we’d spend the afternoon waxing the floors. Or I’ll show up to school to find everyone in suits because it’s parents’ day. Or I’ll be busy working at my desk and I’ll look up to find the staff room suddenly empty because I couldn’t read the memo that said there’s a meeting at 2 p.m. in the gym.

The teachers are happy to translate for me but it’s frustrating having to ask all the time. I hate the way being illiterate has stripped me of my independence. I feel like a helpless child instead of a real member of the team. I am completely dependent on other people to understand what’s going on around me.

It’s so hard not to be able to really talk, especially with the kids. I have so many opportunities to interact with them outside of class and once I’ve exhausted my basic Japanese, I’m left feeling pained by how superficial these conversations are. The kids are so great and so much fun and I’m dying to get to know them better but I can only go so far before I’m strangled by the limitations of the language barrier.

Sometimes my inability to communicate has more serious consequences. Like what happened with the PE teacher. She invited me into her home, she took me to Hiroshima with her family for the weekend, she brought me fresh vegetables from her garden, she introduced me to her son and, after a few drinks, told me she hoped I would marry him. She took me under her wing and made me feel like a part of her family.

And then in April, she didn’t show up at school for a week. I asked one of the teachers if she was on vacation.

“No,” he said in Japanese. “Her mother died.”

I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I realized that if I hadn’t asked why she wasn’t at school, no one would have told me. I remembered her name being brought up at the staff meeting earlier that week but I didn’t understand why.

I felt completely useless. In Canada, I would know exactly what to do. I would buy a card and write a heartfelt note. I would look up the obituary in the newspaper and find out when the funeral was. If it were a close friend, I’d cook and clean and be a shoulder to cry on.

But here? I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t read the newspaper so looking up an obituary was out of the question. Even if I could read the obituary, I had no idea what the etiquette was for Japanese funerals. Was it appropriate to show up at a funeral unannounced? Did you need to be invited? Was it for family members only? Had I already missed it? I had no idea.

Should I phone her? But if I phoned her what would I say? I didn’t want to stutter my way through a condolence in Japanese and have her not understand me. So you know what I did? Absolutely nothing. I just went home and cried.

At that moment I hated being in Japan. I hated being an outsider. I hated the teachers for not telling me her mother had died. I hated myself for not being able to understand the world around me. I hated that a friend’s mother had died and I did nothing. I hated the thought of her thinking I didn’t care.

I blame myself for feeling alienated in this situation. But there are moments of isolation that I am powerless to control. I can’t escape the fact that I am a highly visible minority in a small, rural town. As a result, I am followed around the grocery store by stares, and I am often left with empty seats on either side of me on a packed train.

People here seem to have one of two reactions when they see me. They either go out of their way to avoid me or they bombard me with questions: “Where are you from?” “What do you think about Japan?” “Can you use chopsticks?” “Can you eat raw fish?”

I always answer their questions in a cheerful and friendly manner. It’s great that they’re so curious and interested in me. But I’d rather be accepted as an individual instead of always being pushed back into the gaijin box.

I don’t want special treatment. I don’t want to be the centre of attention. I want to blend in with the crowd, not tower above it. I want to be anonymous. Most of all, I just want to belong.

Sometimes I feel like my life in Japan has been a lesson in loneliness. This is not meant to be a criticism of Japan or Japanese people. Living here has been an overwhelmingly positive experience and I’d do it again in a second.

But I wanted to put my feelings of alienation into words. It would be dishonest of me not to do so. The frustration, the isolation and the loneliness have been just as much a part of the experience as the fun, the adventures and the wackiness. To only write about the positive stuff would be misleading.

The past year has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. But the occasional lows have been balanced out by so many wonderful highs. The isolation isn’t an omnipresent thing. It seems to come and go. I don’t know. Maybe this is what they mean by culture shock.