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Lessons of a Language Teacher

The other day I was informed by the town hall that my lessons for Primary Schools during the month of November would be centered around the exciting theme of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Now, for those of you not in the know, Head Shoulders, Knees and Toes is a pretty cool song that virtually all kids, (well British ones at least), learn when they are between the ages of 3 and 5. It involves one standing up, and singing the following:-

Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
Knees and Toes
Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
Knees and Toes
Eyes and Ears and Mouth and Nose
Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
Knees and Toes

And, if these stunning lyrics were not enough, one must also point to the various parts of ones anatomy whilst saying the words. Yes, it’s that cool and thus I anticipated doing these lessons with relish. Of course the whole point to the lesson however is to teach my little darlings the parts of the body and thus it is no use just singing the song and pointing to body parts, they just wouldn’t get it. Therefore I decided, in my infinite wisdom, to draw a big picture of a body (clothed I must add), and then point the bits out to my kiddiwinks first, before progressing to more musical activities.

Now, whilst this idea sounded good in practice, I soon hit upon a massive stumbling block, that being the fact that I cannot draw; or in other words, I am to Art what Josef Stalin was to Humanitarianism. I attempted a few bodies, but to say that they didn’t quite turn out as anticipated is something of an understatement. What I am very good at however, is gaining inspiration from the creations of others, (i.e. nicking other people’s ideas), and with this in mind, I decided instead to copy a popular cartoon character and then use this instead of my own pitiful creation. But great as this idea sounds, it too only created more problems, since I then discovered that not one popular Japanese cartoon character has all the necessary ‘bits’:-

Pikachoo has no knees.
Am-Pam-Man also has no knees, or toes, and indeed he often doesn’t even have all of his face.
Thomas the Tank Engine is a train, he thus has no body.
Hello Kitty has no mouth.
Miffy bunny, no knees also, (though very big ears it must be said).
The Moomins; they have very little except huge noses.

I was at a loss, what to do? As one should always do in a crisis, I made a cup of tea and put a CD on. And then it came to me! (Strictly speaking, not entirely true, then a mate rang up about something else entirely and I asked them what to do). There was the answer, MANGA!

No, I know not if you are aware of this but the Japanese are the worlds biggest consumers of comics. They sell them in the thousands and all ages read them. These comics are called Manga. So, there it was. All I had to do was buy a comic and copy one of the characters out of it. Thrilled, I rushed out of my little aparto, down to the nearest shop, grabbed the first comic that I saw, handed over my yens and rushed back. Unfortunately, I hadn’t checked first which comic to buy. Big mistake, for I opened the pages and lo! What did I see?

Well, I cannot tell you, but from the title “Exciting comic for men” you can take a pretty good guess. Yep, it was hard-core Manga Porn. Now whilst this was undoubtedly interesting from an artistic point of view, it was of course no good for my little munchkins, who would undoubtedly learn about more parts of the body than was on the curriculum if I copied one picture exactly. Unperturbed though, I browsed through the book until I found a figure which was passable with a few minor alterations, (e.g. slightly smaller breasts and clothes).

And so I set to work, and when this figure was finished, I clothed her, in Osawano JHS uniform. I then realised that she was actually holding something and the picture looked incomplete without a large cylindrical object for Miho (as I had christened her) to hold. Due to a lack of other ideas, I then added a huge flagpole complete with Japanese flag which I am sure you will agree is a perfectly natural object for any schoolgirl to hold. Thus she was complete and I felt very proud with myself.

The next day, the lesson commenced. Miho was put up on the board, and my little posums were most impressed. I selected one from the class as a volunteer and asked her, “Where is Miho’s head?” Little Yuki thought for a while and then pointed, correctly at Miho’s bonce. “Ping-pong!” said I (that means well done, don’t ask me how they got it), and so I then asked her to point out the shoulders. Again and again Yuki guessed correctly, until I said “And where are Miho’s ears?” Blank look from Yuki. I turned to her classmates. “Can you help?” I enquired. More blank stares. Then Japanese teacher says to me, “Ears?” “Yes, ears” I replied. “Excuse me but,” she paused for a moment, “Miho have no ears.” I looked at the picture, and yes, she was right, I’d forgotten her bloody ears.

Yesterday was a bad day. To be honest it was a bad end to a bad week. Or at least I hope it was the end. But then again, it may not be. Normally I am not one to moan; in fact barring garden centres, Manchester United, vegetarianism, Margaret Thatcher and Robbie Williams, there are very few things on this earth that can put me in a bad mood, but yesterday I was not happy, and I hadn’t even seen a garden centre.

It started pretty awfully when I awoke at ten to nine. Now of course, compared with the previous few years, this is still an exceptionally early time to wake. But here it is not early enough, for my first lesson started at quarter to nine, and I had no excuse whatsoever for being late. Therefore, I had to pretend that I was ill, and indeed that perhaps the school was lucky that I had managed to drag myself in at all, since most ALTs would hardly be able to move in my sickened state. To be fair, I wasn’t on top of the world anyway, (and before you ask, no, I had not been drinking the previous night), but I wasn’t THAT ill.

So without a shower I rushed to put my clothes on, that I had washed the previous day in preparation. Except that I then noticed they weren’t clean. Japan is the most technologically advanced nation on earth, I can state that without a doubt, just look at the especially cool mobile phones, disc players and other assorted electrical appliances. This being the case, why the hell have they not managed to invent a washing machine that can actually clean clothes? The reason why they don’t clean them is simple, they don’t use hot water. Now in my mind, even an idiot can work out that maybe heating the water up helps in the cleaning process, but no, Messers Fuji, Suzuki, Toyota, Yamamoto, Tanaka et al who can invent a mobile phone the size of a rice crispie, cannot work out that maybe hot water is a good idea for washing machine. Thus, the clothes had to go back in the washer and I had to wear the minging clothes from last week.

Upon arrival at school I then found that it was my only busy day of the year at Osawano Junior High, so I had no time to sort myself out properly. I hadn’t managed to have a cup of tea at home, so feeling decidedly in need of caffeine, I rushed back from lesson number one for a nice mug of tea. Except that they ran out of tea. And milk. So, instead I had to lower myself to drinking coffee which may be perfectly fine for people from the south of England and mainland Europe, but does not suffice for those from higher civilisations. But there was no alternative, so I drank coffee, with powdered milk. Yum!!

The day progressed slowly, until dinnertime, (lunch to those of you from down south), an event which I, (like most fat people), always look forward to with considerable relish. I sat down with my delightful third year students in the dining hall and surveyed the fayre on offer; rice, and vegetables, some sort of soup, and a chunk of meat. Well, at least it wasn’t vegetarian. By the rice was a small packet of what I call “sprinkly stuff”. Every so often they give us packets of bits of dried fish, meat or veg to sprinkle on our rice, thus making this staple food moderately interesting. ‘Good’ thought I, and I proceeded to open the packet and sprinkle it upon my rice. “Aah!” I heard a shriek and looked up. There were several of my third years shrieking and pointing. The rest were giggling. “Matto-sensei, this no rice, no!” I was puzzled. What were they on about, and come on, couldn’t they speak any English that made sense. Just about to chastise them I then remembered who was responsible for their bad English and decided to keep quiet. The student opposite was still pointing at my dinner. “Matto-sensei, this no rice, milk!” he exclaimed. I looked down at the packet which I was sprinkling on my rice and noticed a huge grinning cow on the front. It was not not sprinkly stuff for rice at all, but chocolate powder for the milk. Thus, I had to endure chocolatey rice and the fact that all my thrid years reckon I am pretty stupid.

And there was still no tea to wash it down with.

And some student nicked my bike.
Just recently Japan seems to have been taken over by one of those catchy pop tunes that appear from time to time, are on everybody’s lips and then disappear completely, only ever heard again at wedding discos or other such celebrations. The beautiful “Macarena” by Los del Rio and the haunting “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies are two examples of such songs. I am not sure of the precise title of the tune that is brainwashing the Japanese public at the moment, though it is known by most of the gaijin at least as, “The O-ha Song”.

The formula is simple, take a member of Smap (a popular band), dress him in women’s clothes, call him Shingo Mama and then get him to perform a catchy song about his addiction to mayonnaise, and give the catchy tune an equally catchy dance. You see, it is the dance, or at least parts of it, that people remember. Basically, you sing “O-haaaa!” a lot, making two ‘ok’ signs with your hands for the ‘o’ bit and then pushing both hands out in front of you, fingers stretched out, (imagine you are pushing open a heavy door with both hands), for the ‘haaaa!’ bit. “O-ha!” incidentally means ‘good morning!’ and yes, before you ask, of course I purchased this CD, (if only for the dance moves inside the sleeve).

But, alas! This is not what I intend to discuss with you this week. Instead, I shall tell you a little of myself. For several years now, I have taken to sitting in cafes and sipping sedately on cups of tea, or if that is not available, coffee. All great, famous artists and writers do this, in the cultured cities around the globe – Paris, Milan, Rome, Barcelona, Wolverhampton – whilst they muse upon their latest writings or etchings.

Now of course, I am sure that many will be quick to point out here that I am neither a famous author, or indeed remotely good at etchings, paintings, or indeed anything that requires a grand deal of effort, but hey, I like caffeine and it makes me feel more intelligent than I actually am. Now of course, many will also be quick to point out that Osawano is generally not regarded amongst the great centres of world culture, but unperturbed I persevere and continue with my vocation.

Indeed within Osawano I have found a venue where I am quite at home; it is named ‘Gusto’. Now, I have to admit, that ‘Gusto’ is not quite a French pavement cafe with Art Nouveau Architecture and warm croissants. To form an image of ‘Gusto’ in your mind, think more MacDonalds with rice and a toilet with a heated seat, (I jest not). In fact, I do have several friends who tend to look down upon the humble ‘Gusto’ as “not being authentically Japanese enough”. But, a Japanese-owned restaurant, in Japan, serving Japanese food and full of Japanese people is Japanese enough for me. So what if they serve burgers as well, in my opinion these people are either (A) On a higher cultural plane to myself, or (B) Stuck up their own cultural backsides. I am unsure which….

But, oh, let me get on with my tale. Well, sat I was in ‘Gusto’ the other evening, nursing my cup of tea (with milk), and musing upon the workings of the world, when the waiter came over to me and started with surprise “Matto-san! You have come from England! Yes, you teach in Osawano Junior High, and then a longer spiel recounting numerous exciting exploits of my life.” Now of course, this gentleman’s intimate knowledge of me did surprise me somewhat, so I asked him from whence he had garnered it.
“From the newspaper!” came his reply.

You see, this little story I just told to illustrate a new dimension of my life, that of my new role as a celebrity. The thing is I actually teach every child in Osawano from 3-15 and due to being employed by the Town Council, I have a regular newspaper column. Thus, I am fast becoming extremely well-known in the town. I cannot help but walk down the street before someone will come and “Matto-sensei, herrow!!” Now, of course this was rather pleasant at first. Achieving celebrity status is of course something that we all dream of, and even better, to achieve it by doing absolutely nothing. But to be honest, I am finding that it begins to grate after a while.

The other day, myself and a friend were in one of the finest restaurants in the locality, (ok, small lie, it was ‘Gusto’), when a group of children came in, immediately spotted me and shouted “Matto-sensei, O-haaaaa!” “O-haaa!” I did reply, complete with actions. But alas, this merely spurred the little tinkers on. Oh yes, we were on the receiving end of “O-haaas!” for the best part of half an hour. I walk along the street, and lo, out of the corner of my eye I spy a member of the Osawano youth. I hurry up, bury my head in a book, but to no avail, I am discovered and out they holler “Matto-sensei, O-haaaaa!” Of course, the good side is that if I go out of Osawano, I am once again just a normal gaijin, who does not warrant “O-haaaas”, merely stares, but I do have to live here. They are “O-haaaing” me in the bank, the supermarket, the street and last Sunday, even in the onsen. I admit now that Shingo Mama is cool, he has immense musical talent, his song is great and his choreographer even better, but right now, I wish he would just disappear fast.

And take his bloody “O-haaaas!” with him.

Now, as any ALT can tell you, the first ever lesson that you must do with any of the kids you teach, is an Introduction lesson, where you tell them all about yourself, your family, interests, country, etc, etc. Mine, (I would imagine), are pretty standard, a big sheet with photos and such about my life, (“Here is my mum, here is my cat, here are Stoke City, the world’s greatest footballing force”, etc), and a little talk, “My name is Matto, I like cat, my cat is called ‘Puss’, I like football (and don’t call it ‘soccer’ or you get points deducted), my team is called Stoke City, they are world’s greatest footballing force…” Chuck in a few mentions of Morning Musume, the fact that I don’t like ‘Natto’ (a disgusting Japanese dish that is brown and sticky, looks like what it smells, and it smells pretty gross), I like cats (this goes down well with the girls, who also like cats due to their cuteness and fluffiness), and Bob’s your uncle (my uncle is Lee, not Bob you see), and there you have it, a perfect introductory lesson.

Except that it only last about quarter of an hour.

And the lesson lasts longer than that.

About half an hour longer.

So we are left with the dilemma of how to fill the rest of the time. Of course, we could try and get the kids to write their own introduction, or maybe answer questions on mine, but that is (my teachers inform me), way, way above their level, so instead, we get them to ask me questions about myself. In Japanese of course since that is great for getting them to learn English. Apparently. Now, I must admit, that when I did a little bit of teaching in Bulgaria, I used the same plan, and it soon became apparent that all the kids asked the same questions. The questions that ALL the Bulgarian kids asked were as follows:-

Do you like Rock music?
Do you like Thrash music?
Do you like Metal music?
Do you like Guns ‘n’ Roses? (they had played in the neighbouring city the previous week)
Do you like Iron Maiden?
What is your favourite Premier League team?
What is your favourite Bundesliga team?
What is your favourite Serie A team?
What is your favourite Spanish side?
What is your favourite Bulgarian team?
Had I heard of FK Veroe? (the local side)
Who was my favourite Bulgarian player? Who was my favourite world player?
Did I think that France cheated in the World Cup Final? (of course they did)
Why did I support a football team that was obviously no good?
Do I smoke cigarettes?
Do I smoke marajuana?
How much?
Do I take ectasy?
Do I think that drugs make rock music better?
Have you got a girlfriend?
How many girls have you ‘had’?
Do I like Bulgarian girls?
Do I like his sister, she is single?
Where is better, USA or Britain?
How much can I earn in a month in the UK?
Did I like Russians?
How much is a beer in Britain? etc, etc, etc.

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