Sunday, February 15, 2009

Japan Week: GET

It’s finally over, and boy do I deserve a heartfelt “Otsukaresama”. It went really well, thanks to the many helpful ideas I received. I was surprised to learn that these kids are actually really, really interested in Japan. It kind of reminded me of being back in Japan in that they were completely rapt in my every word, and would be fascinated by any piece of information I gave them.

Between the preparations, the language lessons, and shopping at Asian markets, the whole week was a nostalgia trip. As I was going through all of my photos from the past two years in order to put together a brief but informative slideshow, I could feel the nostalgia tugging at me, this time notably devoid of bitterness. I’ve missed my friends from Japan like hell, but for the first time, looking through these photos, I missed the feeling of being in Japan. No one can manicure nature like Japan, that’s for sure. While I maintain that Shi-town sucks pretty hard, it’s startling how much beauty exists even in backwoods Saga prefecture.

Anyway, when I started the slideshow, which was broken up generally into festivals, homes, schools, and food, I ended up spending five minutes on just the first picture because the kids had so many questions. I continued through the slideshow, and the kids had so many questions that half-way through I told them to remember their questions and I would try to answer them at the end. At that point they started shouting out questions instead. Some samples:

“Do they have buildings in Japan?”

“Are there stores?”

“What’s that building behind you? I hope it’s a Red Lobster!”

“What’s difference between Japan and China?”

Even at the end of the week, the kids were still using Japan and China almost interchangeably. I had to repeatedly correct them, “No, ‘arigato gozaimasu’ means thank you in Japanese, not Chinese.” Before I cut the questions off, there were more hands in the air than I could deal with. As soon as I answered a kid’s question, his or her hand would shoot right back up again. Some of the kids didn’t actually have a question in mind when I called on them, and some just wanted to share something they saw on Inuyasha.

After the slideshow, I did the language lesson, which I hoped included a good balance of vocabulary and sociolinguistics. I taught them greetings, bowing, thank you, and how to say “My name is…”, which of course is super easy, because it’s just “(your name) desu.” It reminded me of how good kids are at languages. All of these kids are bilingual except Hayley, so that might have contributed to their ease with Japanese. I really should have taught “yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

The next day I showed them the two manga Colin happened to have, which was One Piece and Doraemon. The kids knew all about One Piece already, which was good, because I didn’t. The activity where I gave them photocopies of pages with the Japanese dialogue whited out for them to write their own story was too advanced for the little kids, but went awesomely with the older ones. I pretty much took Brett’s advice exactly regarding Pokemon. They did not, in fact, know that Pokemon meant pocket monster, and after I taught them jankenpon, we played the gokiburi game in the gym with the three incarnations of Pikachu. That game was just madness, because it was like live-action Pokemon for them, which was almost too much for their brains to handle. I couldn’t think of a gesture for Raichu, the highest level, so one girl suggested that if you’re Raichu, you jump everywhere. Once you win as Raichu, you’re supposed to battle the teacher (me), but I kept forgetting that I’d told them to jump everywhere. A kid would bound toward me, out of breath, then stand in front of me jumping in place, and I would just say, “Can I help you?” before remembering that I was probably supposed to battle with them.

At the end of every day, I had them stand up, bow, and say “arigato gozaimasu” (fuck past tense) to the teachers. I noticed that when we were bowing throughout the day, there would always be a few kids who just didn’t bow. As they were doing a final thank you bow to the teachers, I noticed a few kids saying to each other, “Don’t bow,” and once they had finished, arguing with a girl over the fact that she had curtsied.

“I didn’t bow!” She said.

“A curtsy is a girl bow!” one kid shot back.

I interrupted to explain to them in Japan that everybody bows the same, but one of the non-bowing kids, a fifth-grade boy named Samatar, said, “But we can’t bow at all. In Somalia, it’s haraam.”

“It’s what?”

Haraam. It’s forbidden, like how we can’t eat pork.”

A lot of the kids tend to mix things up about their culture, attributing things to Somalia that should be attributed to Islam, and vice versa. Regardless, I was shocked. It was a combination of discomfort at teaching them something that was against their religion, and a sort of defensiveness of a practice of another culture. My sense of cultural relativism was trapped between two cultures that weren’t mine, and the resulting feeling was all-around embarrassment. I stammered, “But if you were in Japan, you’d have to bow,” and Samatar replied, “It doesn’t count if you’re in another country.” A little girl who had been one of the ones to abstain from bowing said, “I’ll do it!” and stood up and bowed like a proper Japanese person. I let out a small gasp. Suddenly, I remembered what another staff member had said about his home country, Liberia, and how you always bowed to your elders. I said that there are other parts of Africa where they practice Islam, but bowing is part of their culture. I wasn’t trying to argue, just trying to figure it out. Samatar shrugged and said, “It’s kind of a stupid haraam. We bow when we pray all the time.” Suddenly I understood this haraam, apparently better than these kids did. You bow to god, not to other people. I said to him, “I think it’s okay if you bow here, because we’re just practicing for Japan,” then quickly added, “But you don’t have to, if you’re uncomfortable.” I was shocked because all week, all the kids but one were Somali, and all but a handful had practiced bowing with me.

On the last day, I made nikujaga for them, which they loved, and since we only had a little time before the licensed teacher was supposed to arrive for academic time, I opened the floor for questions. Once again, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. They even followed my long tangents, like when one of the teachers asked me what was the most different thing about Japan. My answer, by the way, was about there being a stock phrase for nearly every situation that doesn’t translate well and isn’t something we’d say in English. They followed me even when I gave examples of the situations, the phrases, and their meanings. More questions and answers:

“Did your back hurt from bowing so much?”

“No, it was usually just a little bow.”

“Will you teach me to write in Chinese?”

“First, it’s Japanese, and second, you already asked me that and I told you if we have some free time, I’ll teach you.”

“What kind of water did you drink?”

“I drank normal water from the sink, but actually, Japanese people thought I was kind of weird for carrying around a bottle of water, because they always drank tea.”

“What kind of tea?”

Before long, the other teacher was waiting at the sidelines, and I told them we had to move on, and they could ask me their questions at the end of the day. As I walked back to my office, the kids continued to shout questions at me.

“Wait! Why do they call it green tea when it’s not green!”

“It is green,” I said.

“Does it turn you green?”


“Even your tongue?!”


“Do they have red tea?”

“No. Now listen to Ms. Kelly!”

Anyway, now that Japan week is over, I’m exhausted. There was other stuff we did too, but it wasn’t quite as interesting to write about. Now that that’s over, I have to focus on getting the kids to learn to read again. Yay!


Blogger pthompso said...

This post made me smile from beginning to end. It reminded me how rewarding teaching can be.

12:39 PM  
Blogger GLE said...

That sounds awesome! I'm super interested in the muslims not bowing thing.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Carol said...

Great Post Cassie!!! I always want to steal your post and put them up somewhere where everyone can read them, like on OS. You are such a good writer. And a good teacher. Love YA Even if you hate my poem. Mom

9:01 AM  
Blogger archipelagic said...

Mom, I didn't hate your poem, I just thought it was gross.

9:10 AM  

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