If people wrote about the USA the same way they write about Japan

Every year as the traditional calendar tells the American people that their year is coming to a close, they begin reenacting a set of rituals that both binds them to their ancient roots and reaffirms their relationship to each other.  Christmas (named for the most powerful deity in their religion) appears at first glance to be a thoroughly contemporary event, but in truth its essential nature was set in the mists of antiquity, and continues to show the national character of America and its people.  Each child opening a gift from Santa Claus (a benevolent watcher-elf) takes his or her place among the countless others who have come before.  Christmas is but one of the deceptively modern-looking traditions with timeless roots in this nation where the past and the present meet.  In truth, the threads of history that bind America to its origins is always hiding in plain sight.

Gift-giving often attracts comment by observers of American culture.  Foreigners are quick to attribute wintertime gifts to America’s advanced commercial culture, when the Americans themselves have never been in doubt as to the roots of their civic and religious traditions.  The form of this explosion of gift-giving that occurs every winter is unique to this nation, despite outward signs of convergence with other post-industrial societies, and has its roots in the multitude of traditions that were practiced by Americans across their homeland (the western and eastern hemispheres).  As closely as can be put to foreigners, gift-giving in America involves a pretense that nothing in return is expected.  Sometimes this pretense is taken to the point where the identity of the gift-giver is unknown to the receiver.  However, as usual, the undercurrent of understanding particular to Americans gives unique context to an otherwise normal cultural practice.  To be thought well of by one’s peers in America, one must always endeavor to return the favor, whether in the form of another gift or not.  What appears to the foreign observer simply to be an unanswered gift has meaning that Americans implicitly see, and have understood for as long as history has recorded the practice.  As a result of its long roots, winter gift-giving now seems to come as naturally to Americans as reciprocal social giving comes to Easterners.  Some of the names and details have changed in the modern incarnation of Christmas, and certainly Americans’ mastery of technology has enabled them to ship gifts to family, friends, and acquaintances (a level of friendship between stranger and friend, unique in social character across modern societies) across thousands of miles, but the essential nature of winter gifts retains its immutable Americanness.

Across the Internet, yet another technological wonder by which American culture has gained admirers across the world, Americans reenact social rituals which have bound them to each other since time immemorial.  The pretense of informal relationships that both masks and facilitates the forming of deep bonds has been noticed before, and nowhere is this ancient practice more closely melded to modern technology than so-called social media.  Outsiders fret over whether the closest equivalent to “friend” in their language allows for the types of relationships maintained over native American social websites, but the ages-old fluidity of casual social contact in America makes technologically-enabled relationships a perfect fit for American friendships.  As with other things, the Oriental mind may face tremendous barriers in accepting American modes of thought.  Stodgy Eastern concepts of social closeness are challenged by the American manner of conducting relationships, a traditional practice yet again brought to the world’s attention by misleadingly modern delivery.

In annual holiday celebrations and in forming social bonds, Americans display the timelessly unique qualities of their culture despite cutting-edge technological packaging and apparent commonalities with foreign cultures.  In this modern age, globalization seems to threaten young Americans’ cultural inheritance by promoting sameness with other, less unique cultures.  However, America has survived to the present with its core culture changing remarkably little; there is less reason to worry (or celebrate, for some) than prognosticators on university campuses might suggest.  For the foreseeable future, American culture is its gift to the world that looks to keep on giving.

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Stuff I will miss – 1 month’s worth of hindsight

Last month, twice, I put a list here of things I thought I might miss after leaving Japan for the warmer shores of California.  Today I revisit that list mostly to verify that no, I do not miss most things in Japan.  I do miss our dog’s friends and their owners (our friends), and JALT people. Kids playing tag in the supermarket, not so much.

Varieties of tofu – sure, if I remind myself of these I miss them.  There are ridiculous amounts of vegetarian choices in the US – I made a great chili last week with something like $4 of ingredients – but a good rule of thumb for finding tasty vegetarian food in the US is to avoid the word “tofu”, which many restaurants seem to take as a synonym for “bland”.  Better choices are usually pasta or salads (which, mysteriously, are usually not vegetarian in their default form).

Service, when I’m in a hurry.  I haven’t had a bad service experience here yet, except when we’re waiting behind someone the cashier knows and they really want to catch up.  It hasn’t been the case though that Americans in the service industry are uniformily rude and sarcastic; they just don’t disappear into their roles as completely as folks in Japan.  When you’re the person that the cashier wants to talk to, you sometimes find out interesting things.  Sometimes you also find out quite a bit about your cashier’s religious beliefs!

People generally maintaining a minimum standard of hygiene in public. Not generally a problem, except for some reason in the city of Barstow, where we visited a Starbuck’s that was apparently brewing something highly experimental in the toilets, and wrappers of instant ramen packages blew down the streets like so much tumbleweed.

Natto. Not so far. I instinctively looked for natto-maki along the back wall when I visited a 7-11, but found a craft beer section instead.  Fermentation seems to be the rule for the back wall at 7-11s internationally.

Kurumipan, or “walnut bread”.  No, but I do miss pastries being smaller than my head.  We stopped by Erick Schat’s Bakkerÿ (interesting use of umlauts) on a road trip up north and spoiled ourselves with all manner of baked goods.  These were of high quality to match their enormous size, but many others (thinking mostly of donut shops and supermarket bakeries) replace quality and uniqueness with just more of every ingredient.

I repeat that Japanese folks overplay the “foreign cake is too sweet” stereotype, but it is true that if you pay $1 for a donut here you get roughly twice the amount of sugar as in Japan, if only because the donut is twice as big.

Cheap paper. For some reason. Ditto white board markersToilet paper and paper towels are both expensive here (partly because Americans seem to prefer higher-ply TP and they sell it by the truckload: a little math confirms that per ply, this TP from Japan is actually more expensive).  I’m not sure why I said I would miss cheap office supplies, as I don’t plan to be self-employed here and presumably my workplace (unlike public non-tertiary schools) won’t make me buy them myself.

The feeling that when you buy food you’re paying more for quality than for quantity.  I’m continually surprised at how much extra stuff any food purchase comes with here.  I’m pretty sure at least half of my calories since moving here have been from things I hadn’t planned to eat and was surprised to find on my plate in abundance – collateral calories, if you will.  This doesn’t mean the main dish is made with any less care, but it does speak to a certain expectation on the part of the restaurant and the customer that you will leave the establishment only slightly ambulatory, whether it is from things you actually ordered or low-cost fried starches surrounding them.

Citrus. There is a lot of citrus from Asia which is yet unknown or less common in the US.  I do miss these.  I also miss the jumbo Fuji apples lovingly swaddled in styrofoam, so you can get some of the environmental damage of fast food without leaving the produce aisle.  Fruit here is abundant but you can’t simply fill a bag with random selections from the pile; half of them are bruised and a few look like someone has already taken a bite.  The rule of thumb when buying fruit in the US is that some fraction of what’s on the market shelves won’t be edible, but the fruit costs that fraction less.

The steady stream of subject-verb agreement and literal translation mistakes that I can instantly identify and that have little room for interpretation.  I’ll get back to this after I start working.  The demo lessons I gave had few of the problems derived from bad (but common in Japan) translation, but plenty of issues that plague EFL/ESL learners worldwide- common stops on the interlanguage highway.  Unexpectedly, my recent online essay job proved useful as I was able to advise a student during a demo on just how long a quote can be before you should make it a block quote in MLA.  Look it up.

Predominance of shiba inus, a generally smart and independent kind of dog (I have one!).  Not only are there not many shibas here, but most people seem never to have seen one before.  Contrary to the Missionary Japanist concept of the shiba as one of many  objects of Orientalist fascination ’round the world, most people on seeing our dog simply say, “He looks like a fox!” or “Is that a Basenji?” The people who know what our dog is are often shiba owners themselves, although they have some rather heterodox ideas of what is allowed in shiba-dom.  We’re not sticklers for purebreds at all, but the multicolored, skinny, wiry-haired dogs many people call shibas here wouldn’t be recognizable as such in Japan.

The relative lack of the politics of personal affiliation and aggressive anti-elitism.  Perhaps this says something unflattering about me, but I’ve been cut off quite a few times already on freeways by large pickups and SUVs that I can only assume are driven by Trump supporters.  Off-topic, but I had to say it.

Mini Stop.  On our road trip through central and northeastern California, we passed through towns of all sizes, from 300 people to however many live in Los Angeles.  We noticed something interesting about the types of business that are typically the first to spring up when a town crosses a certain population threshold.  In California, Subway is usually the first sign of nascent growth in a small town, the equivalent to your first Temple in a game of Civilization.  Soon to follow are Motel 6, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, CVS (seller of drugs/sweatpants), possibly Carl’s Jr., and Starbucks.  When every burger chain is present, you can start building your first Settler and look towards expanding.  In Japan, first to arrive is invariably the convenience store chain that is prominent in your corner of Japan (7-11, ポプラー popuraa “Poplar”, ローソン rooson “Lawson”, など nado “etc.”), followed by a “family restaurant” like Denny’s, followed by pachinko.  If you have all of these plus a Mini Stop, congratulations, you presumably have lots of pachinko to occupy the hand that is not holding ice cream.

Shocking students with root beer candy. I would consider replacing this with Hi-Chew or Mitsuya Cider candy for students here, but both are already sold at stores, or at least at Daiso (which had proliferated in my absence).  Anything really shocking probably would cost a prohibitive amount to import.  If I see any kinako-flavored Kit Kats I’ll probably get those for a few lucky students at the end of the semester.

Indian food.  We actually live near a “Little India”, but we haven’t gone yet.  I guess Indian has been pushed out by Mexican, at least for the time being.

The feeling of being able to surprise people with something I know about Japan or the US that they didn’t.  The level of curiosity between the US and Japan is not exactly symmetrical.  Japanese people often harbored intense curiosity about what Americans thought (of Japan), while Americans, if they wonder at all, mostly wonder about rather obscure but bizarre points of popular culture like Babymetal.  Not many people care about the kinds of thoughts on modern Japan that vitiate this blog.  No one acts either surprised or interested when I can name the current Prime Minister.

On a related note, the feeling that one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything or to stick with it as a matter of principle.  I have been in the captive audience for a bit of pro-gun lobbying from a car dealer, but aside from that most people have actually kept their political opinions to themselves (except Bernie fans, on their rear bumpers).  I’m sure when I start having deeper conversations with people I’ll find that the instances of “oh, really?” I used to hear have been replaced by “no, actually…”.

Since we’re moving to California, the cold.  Well, this was short-sighted.  Orange County is as warm as ever, but many places north of the grapevine are below freezing at night, and during the day as well in Owens Valley.  Our dog did a bit of playing in the snow on our recent trip there, and I had the very nostalgic experience of snapping frozen grass by stepping on it on our morning walk.

Hwameis, garrulous birds that make fall walks in our neighborhood extra fun.  Yes, I miss the birds and even the deer.  There are both here, or so the road signs would tell us, but not exactly the same types.  Actually in some cases the birds are almost exactly the same as the ones where we used to live, but still our house is bigger here and so we see less of them.  Also, no hwameis at all, but for some reason we do have flocks of parrots.

A few beers.  Nope, not really.  Beer has really come along in the US since the days of Bud Ice.

The kind of job security that comes with belonging to an ethnic group designated Japan’s English Teachers.  No, I don’t think I’ll miss that at all.  Of the people I’ve interviewed for so far, at least 3 of them have warned me that I will soon be hired full-time somewhere else and have pressed me for verbal guarantees that I will at least see out the semester.  I don’t think I’m showing off since I haven’t started at any of those places yet (and no full-time jobs have been offered, let alone to start RIGHT NOW), but it looks like I won’t be looking back wistfully at being considered qualified merely for my semi-caucasian looks.

In the classroom, the overwhelming focus on motivation as opposed to more nuts and bolts aspects of language teaching.  Why did I think I would miss this?  It’s unambiguously better to have students who want to learn.  Part of being a professional teacher is motivating people, like part of being a professional wrestler is coping with injury.  It’s still better not to be injured.

Having the time to blog like this.  When I get random views nowadays, they tend to be of the posts that took hours or days to write, ones that took legitimate (if non-academic) research.  It’s quite possible that most of my posts from here on will be “light” ones like this.  Also, because I no longer live in my complaint-muse (Japan), I feel I have less to rant about.  I can’t say I miss having all that extra time and indignation, but evidently it provided some entertainment and insight for some people.  I’ll be on the lookout for further opportunities to be underemployed for extended periods and sitting on simmering pools of discontent.

I also don’t miss the constant mixed feelings of “I have to tell them what their shirt means” and “but they will never talk to me again if I tell them”.

JALT vs. CATESOL

I’m still digesting my first CATESOL conference, along with the fairly huge lunch that came with it, put on by my local Orange County Chapter, and I thought I’d post some reflections on the differences between JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) events and CATESOL, based on the years I spent in officer positions at the former and the whole one event I’ve been to from the latter.

Accents and internationalization

I.e., varieties of non-native accents.  JALT, despite its name, is mostly the NEST organization in Japan; Japanese English teachers and teachers of other languages participate more in other organizations like JACET or no organization at all.  As a result, you hear mostly BANA (Britain, Australia, North America) accents and occasionally Japanese accents.  I widened my circle of native English-speaking acquaintances quite a bit in JALT – and for some reason a hugely disproportionate number of those were from the smallish town of Nanaimo, British Columbia – and I made some Japanese acquaintances too, but not nearly as many at nearby dog parks.

The CATESOL event featured quite a variety of accents and national backgrounds.  I’m pretty sure I heard Korean being spoken in the background at at least a few points, I was approached by a Japanese student doing a semester abroad, the host is apparently from Russia, one of my partners for breakout discussions was from Spain, and several other people revealed having been born in another country during the normal course of conversation but had no (non-Californian) accent that I could discern.  This was quite a refreshing change from the internationalism that somehow results in homogeneity that I witnessed often among English teachers in Japan.

Internationalism is a bit a of a banal subject here, it seems.  No one talks about it; no one encourages it or dismisses it.  No English teacher here thinks it is his/her mission to internationalize Southern California.  Best of all, there is no Holliday-sian Catch-22 where the white BANA teachers are the only ones talking about NNEST equality and opposing linguistic imperialism while their local managers and deans openly use them and their semiotically valuable “Western” features as advertising to recruit students who still think white faces = authentic English.  Also none of the clearly hypocritical regressive liberalism when NESTs’ instincts to valide Japanese teachers’ identities result in agreeing to their claims of non-overlapping magisteria, Japanese teachers’ purview being supposedly impossible-for NEST skills like speaking Japanese and understanding juken.  I attended a presentation at the CATESOL event that addressed these issues, but the context was different – it wasn’t so clearly divorced from the consciousness of the community, including most language teachers, outside the room.

To be fair, this isn’t a negative point of JALT so much as it is of the surrounding population of teachers and learners.  It is an issue though that I am happy to put behind me.

Youth, cheerfulness of

I was easily one of the older attendees at the CATESOL conference.  There were poster presentations, most of which seemed to be put on by recent college graduates (although one turned out to be an old Japan hand like me who just looks young).  Many tables at lunchtime put me in mind of the archetypal high school cafeteria (as portrayed in film – my high school didn’t have a cafeteria), by the sheer conversational energy and assuredness of youth.  The Plenary speaker was older, but such things are expected.  All the presenters seemed to be my age at the very maximum.  This gave me a short frisson as well as I realized these people were also several years into a local career that I was now starting afresh.

JALT’s composition, mostly college teachers with MAs or better, pushes the age scale quite a bit upwards.  I’m pretty sure at least some of the other Chapter Presidents or SIG Coordinators were in their 60s, and mid-30s (as I was) seemed to mark one as thoroughly green.  If CATESOL is the NAMM show, JALT is the local symphony’s booster club.  One or two JALT folks were younger than me, perhaps young enough to have to show ID when buying beer (that’s a joke – no one shows ID when buying beer in Japan), but even they were well past the time in their lives when they could be sure what they were saying and their dreams were gleefully unrealized.

Motivation, to participate and to discuss

I mean this in two ways; motivation for being there and motivation as a point of discussion. Both provide some interesting contrasts between the two organizations.

I was surprised to find two people at my table in attendance simply to fulfill a workplace “flex time” requirement, which I suppose is the closest equivalent to having 研究費 kenkyuuhi “research funds”to spend and looking for the least boring way to do so.  Many of the local community colleges also apparently sponsor their teachers’ CATESOL memberships and participation in events like these; I know of at least one forward-thinking eikaiwa that does the same for JALT.

I mentioned before that the energy level among the attendees was high.  I attribute this (perhaps prematurely) to security in the meaning of their jobs; they know that professional development is rewarded by their institutions and appreciated by their students.  One lady in particular left a huge impression on me as someone whose work definitely mattered: she taught ESL in prisons.  That fact and concept alone, revealed to me before the plenary started, basically floored me for most of the speech, as I kept thinking about how small my world of TOEFL test prep and Ideal L2 Selves had been instead of listening to what I’m sure was an interesting and practical treatise on critical thinking. I asked her questions about it throughout our lunch, barely letting her finish her sandwich.  I still feel a bit like my perspective on SLA has been broadened suddenly by a factor of 100, possibly leaving stretch marks.  The point is, people in CATESOL know that their teaching matters.

I’m not totally sure that this is a drawback for JALT, though.  To be honest, the type of teacher who works for decades in Japan and doesn’t burn out is usually very good at deciding what to spend mental resources on, who to try to connect with, and how to best motivate different groups of learners.  English teachers in Japan may also describe their jobs as TENOR (this was whispered to me by the teacher and later presenter sitting next to me during the plenary, which actually made me laugh out loud – it stands for Teaching English for No Obvious Reason), but that means that because you’re not constantly being fed job satisfaction, you have to work to look for it or make it yourself.  JALT presentations sometimes have a faint whiff of desperate appeals for someone in society to take their job seriously, but this does make JALT members work very hard on professional-level presentations and serious research.  It’s overcompensating for the way most of society still sees English teachers, and NESTs in particular, but overcompensating has probably motivated a lot of great work in every field in which people have felt chronically inadequate.  It certainly didn’t hurt Napoleon or David Letterman.

Motivation as a topic was much less present in CATESOL than JALT, or so it seemed to me.  Again, motivation in JALT is a bit like water in Mad Max, it inspires cult-like worship when someone like Andy Boon seems to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet in his classes.  The rest of us realize how precious it is when chronically, post-apocalyptically deprived of it in ours, and the predominant issues in lesson planning become not how to facilitate development of students’ abilities but how to get them to care enough to answer a single yes or no question (besides Shunya; he’s always game).  At CATESOL motivation was more like water in Japan; the issue was not how to make more of it but how to channel it and dam it efficiently so as not to let it overflow its banks (unpacking the metaphor, discussions were not on motivation itself but what to do in classes that were presumed to have plenty of it).  There was one poster presentation on extrinsic motivation, and the study that formed its content was from the Philippines.  If you want to pack an auditorium at a JALT conference, just name your presentation some motivational variant on “Getting your students to speak”.  They may have to bump you up to the 大ホール.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either for JALT, though.  The plebeians worshipping Immortan Joe in Mad Max aren’t wrong that water is extremely important, and you can bet that if they ever move to Japan they will appreciate the hell out of that Mt. Fuji runoff.

Lunch

Lunch was huge.  Did I mention that?

Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #2

I’ve spent the last few weeks driving around Orange County and LA interviewing and giving teaching demos for ESLs large and small, and therefore haven’t had much time or motivation to blog.  Most of this entry came from a brief lull between a demo lesson and feedback (which was positive, hooray), sitting in a hallway outside a row of classroom doors and occasionally nodding at passing students.  It won’t be one of my 3,000-word monster posts, but it’s the best you’ll get given the circumstances.

Enclaves of 10,000 or enclaves of 130,000,000

In Southern California, finding a good match for your skill set or teaching style is sometimes a matter of finding an ESL in the right city or neighborhood.  Orange County has the largest Vietnamese population outside Saigon (or so the legend goes), mostly concentrated around Westminster, a bit west of Disneyland.  Working in south Orange County, however, places you in the middle of large Korean and Iranian enclaves.  Classes in the middle of Orange County, in Santa Ana, would give you classes of almost entirely Spanish speakers from Central America.  Parts of Los Angeles feature different likely breakdowns of student national demographics.  Teaching part time in two ESLs even in the same town would expose you to two possibly very different populations of students.

Teaching reactively means trying to bake wholesome loaves from the grist that your students bring in, and in that sense students’ backgrounds and expectations can greatly affect the flow of the class.  Not that teachers need to completely modify their teaching styles to work with students of different L1 or educational backgrounds, but some adjustments do need to be made, especially when the proportion of students of one national background reach a critical mass of (say) 60%.  I demo-taught a class of almost entirely Chinese students, and the scene where I asked them to do a worksheet in pairs and they proceeded to do it silently themselves and then show their “partner” the completed worksheet was achingly familiar.  I had seen it almost every class back when I was teaching in Japanese university.

This tailoring of classes to students’ backgrounds was never an issue in Japan, where the proportion of students born, raised, and educated in Japan hovered around 100%.  Or rather, it was never not an issue; almost all students were from one background which was different from the teacher’s (if the teacher was in a NS job), requiring a retooling for or to address the deficiencies of the specific class style that virtually all students were coming out of.  A major sub-industry of ELT exists specifically catering to the Japanese market, its unique traits, and the parts of it that insist on being treated as unique even if they aren’t.  English learning guides or textbooks, particularly from Japanese publishers, play up the “especially for Japanese” angle with the knowledge that their students either have specific needs or want to be treated as if they do.  If there is a Taiwanese/Iranian/Thai version of that phenomenon, it undoubtedly has a market somewhere in Southern California, in a bookstore whose name is written in that language on a street whose name might also be in that language.  The city’s name on the other hand is probably Spanish.

Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #1

I haven’t felt much like blogging lately, having completed my journey from East to West (or from my perspective, really far West to less West) and enjoying my new life of Cheez-its, private health insurance, and superwide supermarket aisles.  One immediate reflection: 3 of the 4 car salesmen we saw before we settled on our blue Prius were second language speakers.  This is something I really enjoy about California.

Anyway, I thought I would share as a bit of a public service what my experience has been job-hunting here so far, compared to back where I used to live.

More uncanny valleys

Fairly recent MAs like me tend to fall into an experience trap, one which divides mostly private-market language teachers from university teachers in Japan (speaking here of the native-speaking positions) and private ESL teachers from university and junior/community college ESL teachers in the US.  Private ESLs here, much like eikaiwas in Japan, consider my decade-plus of teaching and my MA kind of like the highest trim option on a car: mostly unnecessary, likely expensive, and anxiety-producing (because you’re afraid of scratching it or it driving off in search of richer owners.  I’d say that analogy has reached its limits).  On the other hand, universities in Japan almost universally require “3 years’ experience” teaching at the undergraduate level in other Japanese universities, and college/JC ESLs in the US require something similar.  Any of the 4 teaching milieux I’m describing see experience in all the others as mostly irrelevant or even a burden.  Teachers in my position, moving from one milieu to another, seem to need connections to get that precious first foot in the door, as our experience and CVs place us at an oddly neither-here-nor-there place.

I’ll keep adding more on this topic as I actually start working.  In the meantime, more Cheez-its.