I Swear I Had No Idea This Was Going to Happen

I Swear I Had No Idea This Was Going to Happen

Big Sis moves between four different schools in her town, working at each for about three to four weeks at a time. She was a little concerned that Tuesday was her first day of a new session at this particular school and she hadn’t been able to warn the staff that I was coming, but we figured we’d give it a shot.


Big Sis moves between four different schools in her town, working at each for about three to four weeks at a time. She was a little concerned that Tuesday was her first day of a new session at this particular school and she hadn’t been able to warn the staff that I was coming, but we figured we’d give it a shot.


When we arrived at the school, I exchanged my hiking boots for slippers that were inevitably too small for me, and Big Sis disappeared into the staff room to explain why there was a gaijin outside trying his best to look inconspicuous as he exchanged a diffident “Ohayō gozaimasu” (“Good morning”) with each of the numerous staff members who walked by.


Big Sis soon returned with her English coordinator, who seemed pleased when I told her that I would be more than happy to help them teach.


We were then asked to wait in the principal’s office. We had tea and talked for a bit while the principal gave Big Sis a late Christmas gift. He spoke very good English. The odd thing, though, was that he was wearing a full suit and blue sneakers. All the teachers wore sneakers. Apparently, even when they wore skirts, the women wore sneakers.


The English coordinator returned and informed me that it was time to introduce myself to the staff. This was a little unexpected, but Big Sis said she’d had to do the same in front of three hundred students, so the fifty-five staff members were, I suppose, a comparatively private audience. I was comforted by the fact that I’d just brushed up on my introduction techniques the week before at my first kabuki rehearsal. From listening to the more Japanese-proficient members of the group, I’d learned little things like how to tell people my full name and distinguish it from what I preferred to be called, and the real way Japanese people say “nice to meet you” rather than the outdated expression I’d learned in school.


I only slipped into informal speech once, when I told them I was from Canada, which Big Sis noted as well. But I don’t think I botched it completely, and I got applause when I finished, so I felt reasonably good about myself in the end.


Big Sis, the English coordinator and I returned to the principal’s office to plan the lessons for the day. The first-year students were doing “can” along with some questions about daily routines, and we decided to give them a few minutes to come up with and ask us a “can” question at the end of class.


When the bell rang, the three of us walked down the unheated halls to the English room, me resolutely wrapped up in my ski jacket. I have no problems with cold outside, but cold inside is a very wrong concept: it’s supposed to be twenty degrees after you walk through a door, no exceptions.


I wasn’t quite ready for the treatment I was going to get in class that day. I was getting a few stares as we passed students in the halls, but no more than I was accustomed to receiving while walking down the street in Shizuoka. I got a hint of what I was in for when Big Sis translated as a group of girls passed us on the stairs and immediately started squealing—that was the "spotted a pop star" squeal.


Once inside the classroom, I introduced myself in English as Mike from Canada, and explained that Big Sis was my sempai (senior) from high school. I felt a little awkward since I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do; I was just waiting for cues from Big Sis and the teacher.


Some of the guys in the back seemed to take a liking to my name and started repeating, “Maiiiiku” with particular relish and approval. I helped hand out the printouts for the day, and some of the kids seemed especially intent on receiving one from me. Big Sis and I then modelled the lines for the students and walked around asking them questions about their daily routines as they practiced in pairs. My conversation-school training kicked in and I started telling the students to “Ask me” after I spoke to them, which occasionally caused confusion. Sometimes a kid would turn around and poke his friend to help him out when he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do. 


I foolishly showed off a little by telling the kids I could do kendo. I really shouldn’t have been doing anything to draw additional attention to myself, but I also used a little Japanese, which I quite enjoyed since I’m not allowed to do so at work. I realized that I would have to improve my listening skills very quickly if I were to work in a public school—most of the kids’ questions were in Japanese.


It was very different being in an actual school environment. I’ve taught kids of the same age in conversation classes, but they’ve been isolated or in groups with adults, and I’d forgotten what kids were like in junior high. Some of the guys tried to wrestle each other in their seats, while others mockingly thwacked one another across the head with their books or poked and prodded each other, and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to do anything about it. I looked to the teacher, but she didn’t seem to be paying it any attention, so I figured it mustn’t have been a problem.


When the students asked us their “can” questions, most of them were fairly straightforward: “Can you play tennis?” or “Can you play the piano?” and so on. Although Big Sis pretends she can't in order to force her students to talk to her in English, she reluctantly admitted the truthful answer to “Can you speak Japanese?”


After class, we were subjected to more informal questions from the students. The favourite was, “Big Sis, can you like Mike?” There were only so many ways we could tell them we were just friends, and they never seemed satisfied with our responses. It was, in fact, the guys who seemed the most enthusiastic about me. It could just be that they’re generally more outgoing than the girls, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it when one of them came up and shook my hand and started stroking my arm while asking me questions. 


We then went to the English office, where Big Sis and I sipped our respective cups of maple tea. After a minute or so, I noticed that the door had slid open a crack, and Big Sis indicated under her breath that we were being watched. A moment later, like something out of a movie, the door slid completely open to reveal about a dozen boys vying for a place in the doorway, a group of girls huddled sheepishly behind them. They all yelled “Hello!” and when I replied they excitedly slammed the door and ran away. This happened repeatedly.


Big Sis had to translate the most amusing incident: a group of girls spilled into the room and bashfully said hello before turning around to run away again. But as they fled, one of them called out, “I’m Yoshiko in Second Year Class Two! Nice to meet you!”


"Name, grade, class. Come find me!" The other teachers in the English office got a kick out of that one.


I’d settled into the routine fairly well by the time we got to the second class. Some of the kids were quite adept and energetic, although Big Sis insisted that the energy was only due to my presence. Big Sis is of Japanese descent, so it could have been that the kids were excited to have a visible gaijin in their school.


During the class, one of the kids tried to ask me in Japanese if I could arm-wrestle, but I had no idea what he was talking about and his solo hand-wringing demonstration didn’t make things any clearer. At the end of the lesson, in the midst of the usual questions about whether Big Sis and I were dating, the same student came up to the teacher's desk and solidly planted his elbow while another kid took up a position nearby, ready to officiate. I didn’t let him win, but I did make it look difficult. Then he challenged my left arm.


I have since learned that the Japanese word for arm-wrestling is “udezumo”—“arm sumo”. Apparently, some of the seniors arm-wrestle with such enthusiasm that it’s not uncommon for them to fracture bones when their elbows slip off their desks.


On the way to our third and final class for the day, I could see a group of silhouettes framed against the window at the far end of the hallway. We were expected. They quickly dashed into the classroom when they caught sight of us.  


I thoroughly enjoyed that last class, although it was at the expense of general order. I was just so unaccustomed to such a level excitement that I encouraged the energetic and rowdy kids to be even more energetic and rowdy. I shook my head decisively when some of the boys tried to get me to agree that a girl was “heavy”, and when one of them insisted that the girl liked me and asked if I “could like” her, I told him that he and she made a much nicer couple. Another boy tried to get me to agree that another girl was “sukebé (“perverted”), and I pointed right back to him and agreed that he was indeed "sukebé." When he protested that I was pointing at the wrong person, I persisted with more emphasis.


When I interviewed for the JET program back in Canada, they put me in the middle of a long waiting list, and I had already signed the contract for my current job by the time they finally gave me an offer in the middle of the summer. I’d flubbed my interview partially because I’d had difficulty explaining what I’d do if Japanese kids asked me socially inappropriate questions. At the time, I simply hadn't been able to understand what the problem would be. I think I passed the real-life test with flying colours. 


In the question period, the boys asked me if I could power-up like a Dragonball character, a question that even the teacher couldn’t understand at first. When one of them asked if I liked Godzilla, I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him correctly, so, making my hands into claws and hunching forward with a contorted expression, I asked, “Godzilla? Graaah?”


Big Sis slowly sank to the floor in embarrassment. The boys cheered. I said yes. Apparently, the sound Godzilla makes is officially “gau”, and I had made a “gau face”.


I ate lunch with the teaching staff. The staff have cafeteria-style lunch boxes provided for them every day, and that day featured fish, rice, soup and vegetables. We also received bottles of inexplicably warm milk, and although I usually try to avoid drinking the creamy dairy in this country, I decided that it would be rude to decline.


The day was shortened by a staff meeting in the afternoon, and Big Sis and I were allowed to leave early. There was still one period of class left after lunch, and although there weren’t any more English lessons, the head of the English department asked us to stick around a bit longer. Or rather, she said, “Big Sis, you and Mike are going to stay in the English office during the next period, aren’t you?” and we decided that it would have been unwise to contradict her.


Big Sis took me on a tour of the school. I was impressed by some of the student art and pleased to see kendo armour sitting outside the gymnasium like the common item it is. We chatted with two staff members in a small office on the ground floor, and although I did my best to field questions in Japanese, I kept hitting my limitation of being able to understand only vocabulary and not intent, so I often had to turn to Big Sis for help.


When one of the women shot a distracted sidelong glance to an open door, I realized that there was rather a lot of giggling going on in the next room. Big Sis pointed out that there were, in fact, several girls in the next room who’d been peeking around the corner from time to time.


My simple existence in that school seemed to have a sort of ripple effect that caused disorder in my wake. A group of boys gleefully entered the English office to declare that I was handsome. A boy in one of our classes had even told me that I was beautiful. While I acknowledge that there’s the matter of the language barrier, I’m still not sure what to make of all this.


At the end of the day, this one senior student kept coming into the office and saying random things to me before hurriedly walking out of the room again. He would then return and try to push a friend in ahead of him, only to do all the talking himself.


After much randomness, we finally made our way out of the school and headed to the local mall for some Puri-Kura. “Puri-Kura” is short for “purinto kurabu”, the Japanese phonetic approximation of “print club”. It involves going into a little photo booth with one’s friends and using electronic pens to draw patterns on the digital images before having them developed. It’s vastly popular among young people in Japan. Several of my high-school-aged students at Blight have asked me to do Puri-Kura with them, and I’ve had to find creative ways to evade the question.


Big Sis wanted to show me kamakura (not the city), which are eight-foot high snow houses shaped like inverted children’s beach buckets (the buckets are inverted, not the children). There was a kamakura every fifteen feet or so along the main drag in town, one of which had been constructed by Big Sis and some of her students. Inside there was a snow-carved bench, as well as a little inset ledge on which Big Sis put a five-yen piece, “Nihonjin dakara” (“Because I’m Japanese”).


It was still snowing like mad, and that night Big Sis and I sat on her floor with a hot pot and made more sukiyaki than could possibly be consumed by two people. While digesting, I looked at photos of some of the festivals in the area, one of which involved groups of about thirty people carrying wood-frame boats on their shoulders and ramming them together to see which one would break first. It sounded like something invented by a drunken engineering student. I think I’m going to have to go back to Akita for festival time.

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