As I get ready to leave Japan and resume living in the US, among other things preparing to drive on the other side of the road, stop saying “un” in response to yes/no questions, and various other Japan-adapted habits, there is one more culture I’m leaving here – that of the classrooms that I’ve taught in for the past 12 years. It is leaving my comfortable classroom environment that will require more changes to my conscious and unconscious behavior to prevent weapons-grade levels of awkwardness in our soon-to-begin American life.
People often act differently depending on where they are and who they’re talking to. That much is not news. Expats and other bicultural folks often present themselves very differently in the cultures they participate in – sometimes out of necessity born of limited linguistic and cultural fluency, and sometimes just because it’s nice to have the option. My first conscious experience of this was when my Irvine (university) friends, who considered me a bit more openly political and expressive, met my Fullerton friends, who probably considered me a bit more thoughtful and reserved. Nowadays, my less-than fluent Japanese forces me to be less garrulous here than in the US, but I don’t necessarily dislike that. I think I’m much better at really listening to people when I’m in Japan, as I can’t always think quickly enough to respond in a naturally witty way and have to concentrate to see the message behind (in and around) the words.
Many teachers talk about how the version of themselves in the classroom and how that is different from the version of themselves that exists outside of it, which they may regard as more genuinely them. I sometimes catch myself exhibiting certain behaviors in classes that make me briefly embarrassed or self-conscious, although the feeling lasts only as long as my moment of sudden third-person perspective, and if I adopt a truly objective perspective I realize it’s only the me that’s used to American teachers that’s reacting this way. I do the same in the US, when displaying tics that get unexpected reactions that I later realize were part of a communicative repertoire that I’ve learned in Japan.
The one that causes me the most worry is the “intimation teasing” that goes on in Japanese classrooms. Teachers in Japan are in the habit of playfully pointing out the foibles of their pupils, and sometimes vice versa. In fact close acquaintances in a variety of contexts do this, and although the content of what the intimator is saying is often negative, it is taken as good-natured and a sign of closeness. Hence the usual translations of バカ baka (“stupid”, “foolish”) don’t really capture the collegial spirit with which it is often said. The underlying logic is that because closeness is a rare and valuable thing, any sign of intimate knowledge, good or bad, is good. Therefore, if an English student makes a mistake (error or mere slip of the tongue), the teacher can call it out and even refer back to it without the class taking offense. Obviously, this doesn’t apply equally to all mistakes, but ones that show the teacher knows that student’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses seem much more likely to be fodder for such rapport-building than in the US, where only positive traits and so exaggerated as to be clearly ironic negative traits are – at least in my experience. I teased students in this manner pretty frequently towards the end of my tenure as an English teacher in Japan, at a level I and they were comfortable with but which I anticipate needing to scale down when I start working with a more diverse population of learners.
I wasn’t always comfortable with teasing though, especially earlier in my career when I saw it as part of an altogether too chummy (i.e. unprofessional) relationship between teachers and students that clearly exists here and sometimes manifests itself in what I still regard as way over-the-line behavior. I was shocked when a college freshman who was a private student told us of her plans to go drinking with one of her male professors – the drinking age is 20 here, and I believe she was 18. More shocking was that her mother knew about this and seemed to regard it as a coming-of-age event, something to be celebrated. This is an extreme example of the apparent closeness that can coexist with what is nominally a vertical relationship. It’s also well known that teachers also hit students, and often this is – like teasing – done with no ill intent (hard to explain how this is possible, but it is), as well as the more obvious cases of corporal punishment. I regard most cases of physical contact as a milder example of the appearance of comraderie between prisoners and prison guards – given that there really is no possibility of an equal relationship, and the threat of punishment always lurks in the background, it’s hard to see an instance of socializing or “friendly” hitting as something other than exploitative. I suppose this is just one more reason that people here see them as signs of deep trust.
“English Teacher” jokes
Making loud, simple jokes is also a regular part of many expat English teachers’ repertoires here. I hate to say it but this may be a part of my classroom persona that most clearly shows my eikaiwa roots. If I have to demonstrate a vocabulary word like hang up, I might pantomime picking up a phone, pinkie and thumb extended, have one side of a fake phone conversation with a student, make a clearly fake excuse to get off the phone (“sorry Yoshio, I have to go. My dog is hungry”) and mime putting the phone back in its cradle. Embarrassingly, I found it hard to get rid of the habit of making jokes that really only worked because they were half reward for students who got them and half rapport-building teasing as in the last paragraph when I joined JALT and suddenly found myself regularly interacting with other native English speakers for the first time in almost a decade. I would occasionally make an overenunciated “joke” as if the university teaching veteran sitting next to me in a JALT meeting were a taciturn junior high schooler. “Hey, Wendy, did you forget to have breakfast? I can hear your stomach growling from here!”
Fishing for self-esteem
I have had moments in my holiday visits to the US where I exhibited a behavior that didn’t result in the reaction I had expected, and when I reflected on this I realized I was transplanting a tic I’d acquired in Japan. I’m sure many more examples will come to mind as I spend more time in the US in the coming months, but the one that has been bubbling in my brain since last winter is my reluctance to compliment myself and tendency to downplay my skill in any field, such as I have. In Japan you generally put yourself down as a matter of principle and let others build you up, denying their compliments all along the way. You only play up your own abilities in job interviews (it’s called 自己PR jikopiiaaru “self-PR”, meaning people don’t know what the P and R stand for). The ideal state of your self-esteem is to be constantly on the verge of collapse save for the efforts of those around you, who remind you that you do in fact deserve to live. Last winter in California I prudently downplayed my Japanese speaking skill in a conversation with someone who would have no reason to know this facet of Japanese etiquette, or indeed expect me to display it, and instead of “oh, I’m sure you can get along just fine – you were teaching at university after all” he said something like “wait – after 12 years you stil haven’t learned Japanese?” I assume this is a position a lot of Japanese transplants find themselves in overseas – the equivalent of passing the ball to someone who then turns out to be on the other team, despite wearing your team’s colors. It will be hard to get into the habit of buttressing my own sense of self-worth again. And no doubt when I visit Japan again people will find me insufferably vain.