Archive for February 2009

Following My Star

February 9, 2009

“So, are you staying in Japan another year?” I can answer that before I finish this paragraph, or even this sentence: “Yes, I am.” “Why?” A much shorter question, that, but one that will take more time because I also have to address a third, which is, “Why did you take this job in the first place?”

Medicine, engineering, banking, and law: if you are at Duke University, chances are good you’re aiming towards one of these things. I wasn’t. I eschewed pre-med because I didn’t want to look at bodies all day. I didn’t want to do that for machines, either, so I avoided engineering. Banking took a little longer to refuse because the companies were on campus every week telling us the jobs and the money were unlimited and if we invested only three years we’d be set forever. But I couldn’t buy into it. The 100-hour work weeks with no church and no sleep seemed unbalanced in the Aristotelian sense of the word, and the money-sex-booze vibe I got from the financial types at Duke, not to mention the ones profiled in the media, didn’t suit me. I befriended a few brilliant people who genuinely loved banking and couldn’t stop thinking about the numbers. Cheers to them, but I can’t relate to that. I minored in Math more because it was a mental challenge than because I wanted to do equations all day. (“There is redemptive value in suffering,” I always said.)

Law, which I was born into, happens to relate to Philosophy (my major) and to be a safety valve for liberal arts majors, but it seems so dry and technical. People said, “You can become a lawyer, make your money, and then write about law, just like [my favorite writer] John Grisham!” But law school is three years; the bar exam process is a fourth, and then becoming a partner requires many years of grueling labor. Ezra Pound excepted, law is a vocation, not a side job. I took an LSAT class and got a good score on the test, but I just couldn’t go through with the application. The only school that interested me was Columbia. Not because of its programs but because it’s in New York. If the first place you go in a law school’s FAQ is “Can I defer acceptance?” then you probably shouldn’t apply.

My dream, I have said since I was around ten years old, is to be a novelist. Writing is the one thing I can do for hours without looking at the clock; in fact, I have to keep myself from writing more because it’s bad for my sleep and my grades. (In fact, it’s getting too late right now.) My host mother in Spain, though, had a point when she said “Escritores no tienen ningún futuro,” or “Writers don’t have futures.” Making it as a writer is as difficult as making it as a rock musician: there are way more dreamers than actual positions, so people give up a lot of money and years get the bottom-level jobs, and the people on the top often owe as much to luck as to skill. Lots of writers go into journalism, but the day-to-day reporting grind wouldn’t give me the kind of knowledge I wanted. If it’s my vocation, the Holy Spirit will show the way, but the path is not clear.

Plenty of writers go into journalism, but the day-to-day grind wouldn’t give me the kind of knowledge I wanted. In high school I threw myself into the Western literary canon, from “War and Peace” to all of Shakespeare’s plays. I majored in Philosophy. I hadn’t heard anything about Plato, Descartes, Confucius and the like, but they were so often cited in intelligent discourse that I knew I had to understand them; plus the classes encouraged rigorous, systematic thinking. Now I feel drawn to learn Chinese and Japanese. It never occurred to me when I was trudging through the high school Spanish curriculum, but my ear for languages is unconscious. I started behind most students in my Spain study abroad group, and by December I was better than everyone but the kids from Miami. Chinese, which I took my senior year, is famously grueling at Duke but I made A’s both semesters and then could carry conversations with Singaporeans when I got here. I went home for Christmas this year, and when I came back to Japan I was speaking the language better than I had before I left.

Whoever has ears ought to hear. The economic argument for my path is that the world is becoming more and more global and competitive. China has four times as many people as we do, and they’re also working harder. Japan may not grow much but it will still be one of the strongest economies. In the Western hemisphere, everyone south of Houston speaks Spanish. Fluent in those languages, I’ll be needed somewhere. The literary argument is that understanding so many cultures, not just in the “I’m a surprised tourist” sense but in having the language ability to draw from thousands of years of stories, metaphors, and value systems, is my “angle.”

Originally I was planning on staying here a year, then doing the same kind of work somewhere Mandarin-speaking, but this was the best teaching job available. In fact, this was the best job available anywhere. I looked for other jobs in Japan, in the embassies and newspapers and so on, and every opening, even for secretaries, seemed to require 5 years experience and bilingual skills. I sent emails to all my contacts in Japan asking if they knew of other opportunities, and no one replied. I have great pay, lots of time, and a fantastic atmosphere. Coming here was like visiting a friend’s house right before a snowstorm. I’m in a temporary situation, but I’m also very safe – safer than I would have been had I gone into banking, business, journalism, or law school, ironically. My salary is a rent-free, tax-free 3.6 million yen. One dollar was worth 120 yen when I applied, but it’s only 87 now. My Board of Education pays for my housing. Thanks to a treaty between the US and Japan, I don’t have to pay taxes to either country, not even Social Security. (Japanese Social Security is deducted from my income now but paid back in a lump sum when I leave.) So I have the equivalent of a $60,000 job, and I’m consuming less than 20% of my income. Teaching jobs in China and Taiwan offer half the pay, plus I’d pay rent and income tax, so I’d be much closer to breaking even.

I have a lot more free time than most people with 9 to 5s. A big reason is location. The only way my commute could be shorter is if I lived in the locker room of my junior high school. Monday, Thursday, and Friday, I have a two minute walk to work. My elementary schools Tuesdays and Wednesdays are all within ten minutes by car. The junior high school also has a track, so there’s always somewhere to run. I’m busy at elementary school but at the junior high, I don’t have to write tests or grade much. I usually have 2 hours of free time to study, and my teachers are pretty supportive of me using time that way because I’m a good example for the students. (Plus they’re in the habit of teaching, and they can teach me, too!) In another job, I would lose more time to commutes, have more responsibilities, and would probably face more resistance to studying at work.

My junior high school was built about three years ago, and besides being too cold in winter and too hot in summer (like all the other buildings here), its facilities are top-notch. The windows in the seventh graders’ rooms provide a clear view of the beautiful green mountain, covered in orange groves, that frames our town. The volcano across the bay is in the western horizon, and sometimes when the sun is setting behind it, it looks as red as the Japanese flag. When I drive back to my house after dark and the houses and street lights on the mountain get closer and closer, I get a sense that I’m coming home. Since my kids are reputedly the best in the state, and Japan as a whole is renowned for being an easy place to teach, I’m going to have more fun and less stress teaching these kids in my 2nd year of knowing them than I would starting over with new people, new age groups, and a new language.

So this will likely be my only English teaching job. The following year, my plan is to leave Japan with around $50,000 in the bank account and use some of that saved money to study Mandarin as a student in a major city. (I’m leaning toward Taiwan Normal U in Taipei right now.) The rest is still beyond the horizon, but I am at peace about both the next two years and what’s beyond that.

The downside to staying is that I might get bored, plus another year here is another year not spent in another exciting place. It’s hard to be sure since I’ve only served half the first year, but this is a case where the more I learn, the more I realize I have to know. I had a strong sense at the end of Carmel, Duke, and study abroad that it was time for me to go. I haven’t felt that yet here; instead I’d felt anxiety about having so much to do and so little time. I’ve come so far so fast but I’m still not close to fluent. I read terribly slowly. I went to a comedy show in Osaka this weekend, and several of the jokes flew over my head. Sometimes my teachers have to translate my –Japanese– for the kids, and in the part of the language I know best (kanji), I still haven’t passed any of the junior high school tests yet. I haven’t traveled to many places or read any books, so my knowledge of Japanese history, literature, and famous sites is still largely dependent on things I read in English before I came here. Now I’m free to go all over the place this summer, read literature, and actually develop a “voice” in Japanese. Since kanji and also many words are shared between Japanese and Chinese, studying here will also cut down on the amount of time I have to study there! And a second year in rural Japan is still far more exotic, and provides much more writing material, than most things I’d be doing in America. I’d prefer a city and a more central location in Japan, but my job is the same here as it would be there so the only huge difference is not having anywhere to go on weekday nights and being too far away from Kansai or Tokyo to pop in for a day trip. In that case, books can take me where the trains can’t. There are no girls my age, but I’m not close to the man I want to be so I’m not losing anything.

The other bad thing about living here is that while I have a lot of acquaintances and warm relationships, I have few true friends here, in terms of people who share my interests and values and who I really love spending time with. (It’s a good day for Aristotle, who earns his second citation in this mail because he described friendship in this way.) This is quite different from Carmel and especially from Duke, where I had so many wonderful experiences. I had so many great friends at Duke that perhaps I was sent there just so I could meet them and feel so much love. Now there are other ways I have to grow. I live alone, go to church alone, pray alone, read alone, travel alone, and study alone. I’m uniquely suited for this life, so I’m not lonely, but please keep in touch! Your friendship supports me in ways no one does here.

So that’s why I’m out here. This isn’t a “break” from life for me, or at least it doesn’t feel like one. It’s the only thing that takes me closer to my dreams, and the only thing I can see myself doing for now. I’m giving it all I have. Thank you very much for your prayers and support. Like I said before, I feel peaceful about my decision, and I’m excited about what’s ahead. I’ll keep working as hard as I have, and now I know I’ll have the time and the means to fulfill my goals for this part of my life. Good night, and I’ll write you again after Valentine’s Day!

To Be Rather Than To Seem

February 1, 2009

“Be yourself,” we always say in America. Uniqueness goes a long way in our culture, be it university admissions, tryouts for Broadway musicals, or national politics: John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama distinguished themselves with their personalities rather than their records. Kids hear from both teachers and media that they should be genuine, and noisy personalities like Donald Trump and Terrell Owens get more media attention than their more accomplished and introverted peers. Hypocrisy is the greatest sin a politician can commit – it seems better for one’s reputation to always be an evildoer than to do evil while claiming to uphold good.

Variety is the spice of life, and a heart full of love, freely expressed, warms everyone who gathers around it. But what if what’s inside you is bad? If your true feelings will hurt others, should you still express them? If your heart is twisted, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if you tried to be someone else?

The fathers of Japanese society must have thought about this a lot. Social interaction, especially between strangers, is heavily constituted of set phrases, language, and rules which create a minimum floor of courtesy only encountered in high society in the West. Every radio interview sounds exactly the same, from the words to the tone of voice between the host and the guest. In fact, Japanese-level politeness is linguistically impossible in English because there are five modes of speaking the language: plain Japanese between friends and family, which often follows the local dialect; polite Japanese between associates (this is the kind taught in textbooks), honorific Japanese addressed toward social superiors (service workers are drilled into treating their customers as social superiors, for instance, which shocks Westerners), humble Japanese used when talking about oneself to social superiors, and finally, imperial Japanese, which you get to use if you’re the Emperor. Americans can try to express these degrees of respect through their bearing, their tone of voice, and so forth, but it’s more difficult without the natural cover of the language. Even if you know nice and polite things are said to everyone, not just you, they’re comforting to hear.

Young people, especially girls, learn that being shy is considered attractive. Various love songs, even in rock music, praise women for their “quiet smiles” more than any other endowments. Class clowns are sometimes quietly disliked by the rest of the class for taking attention away from the teacher. You’re more likely to teach a group that’s too quiet and introverted in Japan than one that’s too rowdy and impolite, and when I run into my students with their parents at the grocery store, they’re always too shy to say anything, even if they talk a lot at school. Instead of asking them how they’re doing, I should just read them their Miranda rights.

Of course, artifice can only hide so much of a telltale heart. In Japanese, there are several ways to say you couldn’t help doing something, or feeling a certain way. Not coincidentally, negative feelings are often held inside, and problems are not mentioned, until they either disappear or explode. One of the section heads at the Board of Education had been having financial problems for a while. No one at the office offered to lend him money, so he got it from the yakuza instead, and he got so deep that last week, he was arrested for breaking into and robbing an old neighbor’s house. Polite as public servants may be, they’ll still steal from the people; deferential as children may be to their parents, there will still be family murder cases in the news.

The dark side of Japanese society is well-documented by Western journalists. If you know anything about Eastern pop culture, chances are good you’d heard of “otaku.” Otaku are super-fans of anime, manga, and video games: not those who enjoy them an hour a two a day, but rather those who spend all their time consuming pop art, hentai (animated pornography), and online games, never leaving their parents’ basements or producing anything of value – besides those who are paid to write reviews and run web sites for the rest. Shows, pop idols, and now even politicians pay lip service to this demographic to drive their own sales. Before he became a widely hated Prime Minister, Taro Aso was an avowed anime and manga fan who went to Akihabara and addressed the crowd as “dear otaku.” However, the existence of so many indolent youth in a country that already can’t replace its present work force is a problem. Otaku spend all their time embracing their own interests, and the language of “being yourself” and personal independence imported from America helps them stay comfortable with choices that violate Confucian ethics of hard work and sacrifice for past and future generations.

More worrisome than the young men is the unbalanced relationship between work, school, and family evident in the country’s demographics. Schools and families drill children to work very hard, to be competitive, and to try to finish projects no matter how long it takes. They grow up, go into the work force, and pull extremely long hours without complaint. For this reason, Japanese schools and companies are extremely successful, and an island nation with no natural resources has the second largest economy in the world. However, family life is suffering. These workers are often too busy to get married, or too tired to have children, and so the country has to get more and more production out of fewer and fewer people. Because most jobs are in the city, the modern family is more often than not split apart, with the elderly living alone in the countryside they love too much to leave. “Tokyo Story” is Japan’s classic movie about this, but for a more commercial example Yakult, a probiotic milk company, has been making a lot of money in the countryside because its delivery people hang around their elderly customers’ houses and chat with them for a while. If the Japanese do have children –there are plenty of perfectly domestic couples who don’t – there often isn’t the time to properly raise them, so the schools have to carry more classes about morality and home ec, distracting the kids from academic subjects and forcing them to go to cram schools at night to get ahead. The teachers become superheroes, often covering both the parents’ emotional and PTA volunteer-type duties. The children write diaries every single day for their homeroom teachers, who read them and discuss problems with the kids. In all cases, whether there are family fights or students committing crimes, things are kept as private as quiet as possible between teachers, parents, kids, and victims to avoid reflecting badly on the community.

Here’s where I come into the story. The JET Program is nominally about teaching students English, but really it’s about internationalizing small towns, and the way to get foreigners there is to have them teach English. I didn’t know any Japanese, and I hadn’t taken any education classes in school, but I was accepted in front of a lot of people who had both, presumably because I looked bright, outgoing, and adventurous, which are the qualities an international exchange program would be seeking. I received a couple hours of training in teaching and Japanese, and no information at all about the Japanese education system and the rhythm of school life, before I was put in front of my students for my self-introduction lesson.

In a sense, anyone can be a teacher as long as he knows something the students don’t, so there’s nothing criminal about what the Japanese government did. The program has run for 20 years so in their estimation it’s a success. Some of the best education foreign teachers do here, I think, is unconscious. The Japanese value system on everything from art to beauty to language is extremely complex but also quite limited from a Western perspective. The easiest analogue is the language, which is over 2000 years old and has untold levels of depth but only five vowels and ten consonants. The vocabulary is greater than 20,000 but foreign words like “the” and “year” cannot even be accurately written in their alphabet. I am “Jehhh-mu-su Su-ma-ee-su.”

Because foreigners have been raised outside the Japanese value system, the way they look, talk, walk, play sports, and laugh (well, especially the way –I– laugh) are completely new, even incomprehensible to the students, or else something they’ve only seen portrayed facetiously on television. When I tell a teacher she looks good today, she’ll turn to one of her male counterparts and say, “See, the –foreigner– thinks I’m beautiful!” When I dressed as Santa Claus and surprised the kids at a kindergarten with loud merriment and presents, some were excited and jumped up and down, but most were shocked! They stared at me and received their presents shyly, so amazed were they by a white-bearded foreigner in red throwing his personality around. Most applicants hope for the city, but the most life-changing work is done in the places no one else goes because no one knows they exist.

Regardless, the distinctions between the responsibilities of the Alternative Language Teacher (that’s me) and those of the other teachers create tension. My job, contractually, is easy. There’s a 35-hour work week with 20 vacation days and a 3.6 million yen salary, which covers cost of living in the big cities but could cover three years of expenses when you live where I do. You’re teaching your native language, something you already have decades of experience with, and there is always a native teacher in the room with you, technically in charge and often literally so. You can’t grade or discipline the students. The Board of Education handles your legal paperwork and often your living situation. The responsibilities are intentionally played down in order to make the position more attractive and the application process more competitive. These ALTs, however, invariably share the office with the actual Japanese teachers who are running the school. Being a Japanese school teacher is hard. University education programs are competitive and challenging. When you get out, you become a teacher, parent, and coach at the same time. Everyone works until 5:30 every day, most until 7 around half the time, and the youngest one will have ridiculous hours, often ‘til 10. Not only that, the native teachers don’t make as much as the ALT until they turn 35, at least in my state. So there is a strong sense of camaraderie between teachers, and the ALT is often left out of it.

To begin with, ALTs, alone among adults in Japanese society, are referred to by their first names. I am “Mr. James.” This is friendly, and my social superiors have the right to call me whatever they like, but it also has a patronizing tinge that I’m not entirely comfortable with so I am really happy with the class of 7th graders that calls me “Mr. Smyth.” More crucially, there’s a lot happening at school that isn’t communicated to ALTs, and not necessarily for language reasons because the English teachers could translate for them. This goes from school activities (many a teacher finds himself abandoned in the staff room while everyone goes to the auditorium) to work parties, a central part of Japanese culture that the foreign teachers sometimes aren’t invited to. I alone among the teachers was left out of the math teacher’s wedding this winter, which was totally understandable because he had a lot of friends and not enough room but still a little awkward. Because teachers want to avoid conflict, feedback about ALTs goes up to the Board of Education, not down to the teachers themselves, so ALTs often don’t hear the complaints and criticism about them until much later, if at all. Everyone at my 200-student school seemed perfect. Then I learned Japanese and realized that when morning meetings go long, it’s because the teachers are talking about students’ mental illnesses, shoplifting, deaths of parents, fights between family members, and the like. They’re telling each other things to be sensitive of and deciding what to do about it, and awareness of these issues would help me do my job better, too, but they would never actually tell me. The communication gap even extends to the administration of JET. At a meeting for first-year teachers and their supervisors last week, in its concluding remarks about Japanese-ALT relations the coordinators held up a poster-board that said in Japanese, “Errors and difficulties are opportunities for growth.” They then turned the page to their English translation, which breezily stated “Enjoy the difference!” To understand your environment, you can’t just hear what Japanese people are saying to you: you have to understand what they’re saying to each other.

I’ve shot the communication gap because I learned Japanese so quickly. I don’t need anything to be translated for me so lack of communication isn’t a problem, and I have a more normal working relationship with my teachers and faculty than the other ALTs might. I’ve worked until 6:30 several days since I came here so I have a reputation for work ethic. Since I work at exceptionally friendly schools, the kind I’d like to stay in forever if my calling were primary school teaching, I probably would have been accepted regardless of language ability. However, I’ve also been exposed a lot to the other foreigners, too: one weekend with 200 new teachers out of the Chicago consulate, Tokyo Orientation with a thousand more newcomers, two 2-day seminars for my state, the 120-person Halloween party at my house, and seemingly weekly get-togethers with the teachers in surrounding towns. So I’ve been watching the other foreigners react to things quite a bit. That’s been interesting itself.

As an ALT, you’re teaching your native language at a basic level, you’re educating others by expressing yourself – the perfect job for Americans – and negative feedback isn’t given in order to avoid conflict. What this all means is that after the frantic move-in, the job can get very, very cozy. Like other teachers, you can repeat the same curriculum year to year, but you don’t have all the other responsibilities they do. Some ALTs treat the job as a vacation or as an extension of college and fill their leisure hours with partying and traveling. The re-contracting deadline is halfway through the contract year, before locking up future employment is even possible for most people, so people who applied to the job because they were aggressively seeking adventure are encouraged to be defensive and cautious; the combination of adventure, decent pay, and low stress creates a mantra of “You don’t know how lucky you have it here.” One year becomes two, three, four, or five, all blissful but not necessarily funneling toward a higher-paying opportunity or a marketable skill. (Most JETs leave the program without literacy in Japanese.)

Another problem the Japanese have with some foreigners is in their attitude toward institutions. Many Westerners, in contrast with Japanese, react to institutions with hostility and to moral authority with cynicism. Only the worst ALTs let these feelings interfere with this job, but one of those bad eggs was in my county the last two years. He was the type who always wanted to see how much he could get away with at work. He regularly showed up late for school, watched “24” in the teachers’ office, went to Thailand without telling anyone, had a shouting match at the Board of Education, got in trouble with the yakuza, fought another teacher over a girl and let his depression over her into the classroom, and on his departure brought two 14-year old girls to America with him, with the permission of their parents but without the permission of their school. The BOE over-retaliated by making things difficult for all the other teachers, too. They refused to give legal help to my predecessor when he got in a car accident, and they didn’t give any of the foreign teachers the mandatory annual physical. The Americans joined the problem teacher in opposing the Board, and eventually the year was ruined for everybody.

Now we have mostly new teachers in the county; everyone has good intentions, and there is peace and happiness. My reverse culture shock was benign, and it came from a Thanksgiving party. The meal was a potluck, and all the traditional Thanksgiving fare was eaten, including turkey ordered from a Costco a couple hours down the road. There were too many people to sit around a table so we stood and ate from paper plates, luncheon-style. After the meal came a good-natured drinking party. It was a pleasant evening, but I laid down to bed that night and realized we hadn’t said a single prayer, and indeed we hadn’t expressed anything we were thankful for at all, besides thanking individuals for bringing certain tasty dishes.

Thanksgiving, the Founding Fathers, Christmas, the Church: all are flawed, but if you cut down everything that tries to embrace higher concepts, you’ll be left browsing in the grasses for food, shelter, and sex, like everything else that lives on this earth. Because customs and traditions are so carefully guarded in Japan, there are rarely debates about whether people are losing “the true meaning” of a festival day. Newspapers, without commentary, run haiku submitted by readers. The country’s history, language, and culture are taught confidently but also truthfully, at least at my school. Japan’s Emperor was humiliated in war and thrown down from his seat in Heaven by the United States Military, but the Royal Family is still greatly respected and has the loyalty of the people. Genji looks like a womanizer to today’s reader, but the novel about him, now celebrating its 1000th anniversary, is still greatly revered. Sarcasm is one of the strong points of American writers, but perhaps we would benefit from a little more reverence.

To be, rather than to seem, “esse quam videri,” is the motto of North Carolina, where I went to college. So much of what I’m facing now revolves around it. I have to reserve judgments about people, knowing that each day as I understand more they could be completely different. I have to keep pushing myself to improve in an apparently consequence-free occupation, remembering Father Time will hold me accountable even if no one else does. Most importantly, I have to be Christ in an environment where many are too afraid to express themselves at all, and remind myself what that means when no one else can provide an example. To seem faithful without having to be so: that is the lotus that is offered to me every day in this foreign land.

This Friday, which would be the middle of the night on Thursday for most of you, I have to tell my Board of Education whether I intend to re-contract for August 2009-July 2010. Please pray for me to choose wisely!