Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Have I Got News For You. It’s not a question, it’s an irrefutable statement.
The past week has been rather eventful, and this is the first chance I’ve had to write about it.
It’s been characterised by colonic abuse, verbal abuse, extreme fatigue, caffeine, beer, rapid mental arithmetic, diplomacy, bureaucracy and fond farewells.
So, as Ram-Man from He-Man might say – let me break it down for you. Go and get a cup of tea. Two sugars please.
Lets start at the beginning. You’ve started at the top again, haven’t you? Come on now. Scroll down to the bottom now there’s a good chap.
Read them in order otherwise you’ll be as confused as a blind lesbian at a fish stall.
I stole that joke by the way.
A couple of days previously I called up Helmut and asked him if I could crash at his pad for a few days. He graciously offered me his spare room without quibble.
Monday morning I got up at 6.30am. I had to get to Helmut’s in Konosu for 9am, get installed, and then head back to head office to give instructions to the teachers covering my lessons and also to close my bank account.
So during rush hour I lugged my big red suitcase, laptop and rucksack across Central Tokyo. That was fun.
Helmut’s house is the real deal though. It’s so authentic; from the ultra-minimal emptiness of the living spaces to the tatami matting and very low tables, I keep expecting a ninja to come crashing through the screen doors at any moment.
I absolutely love it. And should I ever settle anywhere, and if I can do it without looking like a pretentious twat, I would like my house to look like this.
In one corner of the room he has a special alcove designed for displaying whatever is in season – whether that be a flower cutting, a branch or maybe an Oriental screen.
I said I thought he should put a big plasma screen TV in there. I don’t think he’s too keen.
Today I had to clean the flat in preparation for my moving out. Admittedly, it was in a bit of a state as I hadn’t really had the time or inclination to clean it.
Also I had to meet Eli for a fond farewell. Today was her 30th birthday. I had already met up with her and her brother Daichi (top bloke) a few nights earlier to break the news, but this was to be the final curtain.
Predictably, I spent the majority of the day in the internet café downloading podcasts and watching episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm on YouTube when I should have been scouring my Lilliputian kitchen.
Met up with Eli at Ueno at 3.00 and went for a walk around a big lake before nipping into a café for a pineapple milkshake and a plate of chips. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to treat a lady. Form an orderly queue, girls.
I hope I see Eli again. We’re only just getting to know each other and I’m off again, whilst she’s returning to England. I shall make every effort to keep in contact.
Back at the flat I started by scooping up all the crap from my floor and, as instructed by the big signs on my bin, separated it out into burnable and non-burnable piles. The Japanese government are very keen on the environment.
What do they do with the non-burnable rubbish? Burn it.
The next day, Saturday, was a real struggle. The week had been a bit hectic and I still had to think about closing my bank account, cancelling my phone and getting an airticket. Also I had to move out of my flat.
I had caffeined-up again – which is not me at all. I could feel the ebb and flow of aching tiredness underneath my coffee-jitters. “There’s going to be hell to pay when this all wears off” I thought.
I share my classes with Dave on a Saturday. He really is a top man. He was going to a Halloween party that night dressed as Harry Potter and had bought some specs and a red marker pen to draw the magic scar on to his forehead. Nevertheless, we resolved to go to the Izakaya for a few that night.
And so I embarked upon my last day of teaching with the Shane Corporation. Yusei (pictured) was as entertaining as usual and this time didn’t piss on my floor, Mrs Mouse was as ineffectual as ever and darkhorse-salaryman Jun said he would use the word “angry” to describe his wife before using his fingers to make the “horns” gesture.
All-in-all a pretty run-of-the-mill day, then, and by 6.30 I was with Dave, drinking pints of Nambam and ordering skewers of chicken bollocks covered in soy sauce.
Had a pretty entertaining conversation about the 90s - Britpop, Cool Britannia and TFI Friday - but in doing so both realised that we were getting very old. It’s depressing that I have now reached the age where I can talk nostalgically and authoritatively about bygone eras.
Next, it will be “When I were a lad, all I had for Christmas was an Acorn Electron. Only 32k, but I were happy”
After 3 beers I could feel the week catching up with me and Dave had to get to his Halloween party to cast some Cruciata Curses (the most deadly spell of all, non-Potter fans) and so we resolved to give each other loan of a sofa for the night whenever were in 50 miles of each other.
I’d like to keep in touch with Dave. He would have been a good mate. Not that he’s died or anything.
I got home. Tried to write a blog entry, failed, and so ate some chocolate digestives instead.
I knew it wasn’t going to go down too well as Duncan had made me promise that I would work to the 18th. Also, the “ill-relative” excuse is the most common in the book. Two reasons: first, it means that you can leave almost immediately and second, people are reluctant to question you on such a sensitive subject.
But this was genuine. And I had to convince them that this was so.
There was no body really at head office so I left a message with Duncan. By the time I had got to Misato he had called.
“You have to understand, this does look like a bit of a coincidence…” he said. “Especially after you agreed to work until the 18th”
“To be honest, Duncan, I’m not bothered how it looks. My priority is now to get home” I replied.
“OK” He said. “Well I’ll be over your way at 3.30 for a Leaving Teacher meeting”.
He arrived on the dot and we sat down quickly to discuss what needed to be done.
“I’ve spoken to Nishi Kasai (Shane’s Bond Villain-HQ)…. and I have to say they don’t believe you” he said. “But, it doesn’t make any difference. I believe you, and I think you’re probably going to leave anyway, aren’t you?”
Again, he was very accommodating. He gave me a leaving questionnaire to fill in. It was in the shape of a grid. Down the side it had “Reasons For Leaving” and across the top “a very strong factor; a strong factor; a factor; possibly a factor; not a factor”.
The thing that interested me though, was that the “reasons for leaving” were all the things I’ve ever moaned about on this blog: standby/cover ; teaching children ; long hours ; teaching materials.
In short, it’s clear they know exactly what’s wrong with the company.
On reasons for leaving I ticked “not a factor” for “don’t like Japan” because I bloody love it. And also I ticked “possibly a factor” for “management” because Duncan and Neil have been great and are just as much pawns in this game as I.
“Don’t worry about that” he said “People have ticked ‘a very strong factor’ for management whilst sat right in front of me before now”
We sat down in an empty office, and I laid it out as I saw it. Namely, that Shane is a company that has delusions of competency: missing teaching materials, poorly photocopied maps, contradictory instructions, inadequate training. Furthermore, I added that though each incident seemed rather petty in isolation, each teacher experiences 50 such incidents a day.
I suggested had there been a map of all the Shane schools with a pin marking-up every daily cock-up, if you zoomed out you’d see a billion pins all making a big mosaic of Shane’s face.
Duncan was great. He even laughed at that joke. Really, he’s a decent bloke working for a shit company. He was very complimentary about my teaching, saying that feedback from parents and students alike had been very good and took no exception to my lambasting of Shane.
“I think you have high-standards” he said which, it occurred to me, by implication, suggested Shane had low-standards.
Additionally, he claimed I had joined at a bad time and that this was the worst shortage they’d had in two years. I accepted that this may be true but, really, it was too late. I was ill because I was tired and I was tired because I was ill.
I also found out that Lee, the tosser from yesterday, had been called in for a “special meeting” about his conduct. Good.
We agreed a final date: 18th November.
And that, I thought, was that.
But when I got home that night things changed again. I phoned The Midlands to let the folks know I was coming home but on speaking to my Dad, found out that my Grandpa was not only in hospital but also was very ill.
This was another reason for me to get home as soon as I could. My plans needed to change.
I was knackered. I mean at a cellular level. I’ve never been as tired as this. I hope I never am again.
On the Tuesday I was exhausted and had a dicky tummy and so decided to phone in sick. However, because I had ummed and aahed about the ethics of this until about 9.45, all the sick-cover teachers had been used up.
“I’m sorry” said the bloke at Head Office “get through the day as best you can, and call your Director of Studies if you have any problems”
As it happened, my day wasn’t too bad. I loaded up on caffeine, and did my best. Highlight of my day was giving a lecture on the history of Bonfire Night to a load of housewives at only 30 minutes’ notice whilst off my tits on Nescafe and Coffee Mate.
I did it all from memory and I think I got most of it right: I told them Guy Fawkes lived on a houseboat in Leicester and invented the scone. That’s right, isn’t it?
So on Wednesday, still feeling like Guy Fawkes after a night on the rack, the cake rack that is, I thought I’d get my sick request in early.
The procedure is thus: you phone head office; they give you the number of the standby teacher; you phone the standby teacher and give them the details of your classes.
Except when I finally got in contact with the standby teacher, he abused me down the phone for having the audacity to call in sick.
“You better be fucking ill” he said in a tone which carried the snide pomposity of Paxman, but the dim-witted arrogant aggression of Liam Gallagher. “What’s the matter with you, anyway?” he added.
Who are you, The Evil Dr Finlay?
At this point I made the decision that I love my Wednesday classes so much I wasn’t going to have that twat teach my kids. So, indignant, I phoned back head office, told them that their standby teacher was an unspeakable dick, and that I was going in anyway.
20 minutes later I had a call from Jed, another Director of Studies:
“Yeah, how you doing, Phil? It’s Jed. I hear Lee’s been causing problems again”
Note the use of the word “again”. Turns out that I was right: he is really is an unspeakable dick, and one who is causing many problems for the Shane management team. Accordingly, I was asked to transcribe the conversation and fax it across to the head honchos.
So, no day-off Wednesday either, then.
“Gosh, this is fun isn’t it?” I thought.
Then I thought “No, it isn’t”
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Another country beckons and it’s the law of diminishing returns now in Japan.
What a fantastic country this is. What an amazing people. What an admirable culture.
But what a shit job. What a terrible organisation. What a punishing task.
I have questioned whether I’m doing the right thing, but usually by 9.00pm, 10 hours and 25 students later, if you offered me an airticket home, I would snatch it out your hand. Then I’d probably punch you because you had a better day than me.
(Paul, mate, back me up on this one: you’ve seen me come home from work at 10.30 as grumpy as hell. I’m not imagining this, am I? It is shit, isn’t it?)
I think my reasons for staying are outweighed by the reasons for leaving, and now my task is to extricate myself from this situation.
But this is not the end. In fact (wheels in two-tonne cast-iron cliché), it’s the beginning. Or, at the very least, the first third.
Truthfully, I’ve been bitten by the travel bug. Right before I swatted it with a rolled up copy of Total Film magazine.
Yes, this living away from home lark is rather good. There’s an almost child-like excitement to it - like reading your Whizzer and Chips annual by torchlight after your Mum has told you to put your light out.
I’m planning to return home to the Midlands for a short while, before heading off somewhere else. Candidate cities include:
The reality is I know very little about any of the above cities, but then again I didn’t know that much about Tokyo before I came here.
Yes, it may turn out that Sydney is full of beer-swilling, cork-hatted twats, Auckland is as about as much fun as a mortuary, Vancouver is full of Bryan Adams fans and Dubai is a toilet. But at least I’ll have fun finding out. Huddersfield, however, will always be rock and roll capital of the world.
Oh and if anyone wants to suggest a city, they are most welcome to do so. I’m not really one for slumming it - ie living in a hut made from rice, poison darting my dinner or wiping my arse on moss – so really I am looking for a bit of civilisation, although that’s Australia out, I fear.
But if anyone knows of any particularly interesting cities, I would love to know.
Wherever I end up it may not be as exotic as Tokyo, but I would ask that you join me on this blog for the next instalment of my journey.
Go on. Please say you will.
Friday, October 20, 2006
Kind of had to mention it was a email first, otherwise Andy, upon checking the site may start to think I had taken to replying by simply copying and pasting blog entries into return emails.
Which of course would have been very lazy.
Anyway, I have edited it down, removing all the private chat and compromising information and have left you with the important news:
This is a long email. Go and get a mint tea. Or a smoothie. Whatever you Londoners drink these days.
Apologies for lack of comm. Things at this end have been er...busy. More on that later. (Who Am I, Moira Stewart?)
Speaking of Kristy, I her emailed her to ask her if she remembered that one of the last things she ever said to us was that we could look her up anytime.
She was as sunny as ever and emailed back in 18 minutes.
"Hi Phil,Long time no hear. Glad to hear you made it to Tokyo. That is great news!!good on you! How is andy? Has someone else moved in after you left? Didyou finally find a replacement for me!! :)
I will probably still be in Sydney. You definately have to come and visit me if you make it over here. I now have an english guy living here, he just moved in. Cant seem to get away from them!! heheh just joking!!!"
This brings me on to my last point. I am handing in my notice. Number of reasons.
The hours are making me ill. I know, know. I am a gay, you are rock and roll etc.
But this 6 day a week malarkey is ridiculuous. Last month I had 3 six day weeks and two days holidays taken from me for "training".
This month was meant to be easy. And I've already had one of my days taken off me. I haven't had more than two days off in a row since the first weekof August. And 90pc of them have been floating isolated days.
Never mind, I thought. I'll book a week off in November. Literally, as I was thinking this, a fax was buzzing its way out of the machine. It said"no more days booked off until Christmas - by order of the management".
I can't tell you how knackered I was on Wednesday. Actually I can. I had to drink three cups of McDonald's rocket-fuel coffee just to function. Needless to say the next day (yesterday) I didn't know what day it was (soit might not have been yesterday after all).
Called in sick two days on the trot, legitimately I might add, because I was totally exhausted. Don't have time to do anything, or see anyone. Would like to get to meetsome local women, but too knackered, could only see them once, maybe a max of twice a week.
All this for 14k a year? No fucking thankyou. I know this wasn't meant to be a holiday, but I didn't think it would be the Burma Railway either. I could be earning 14k for doing far, far less.
As I see it, I've nearly done here. I've walked down their streets, eaten their food, watched their TV, spoke to countless people about their lives, been up some towers, travelled on some futuristic transport, visited some temples, seen Mt Fuji at sunset and learned one of their alphabets. The easy one obviously.
I've just dinged a bell and gone "OK. Next"
Am now going to extricate myself ASAP. Come back to England, recuperatefor about for a month. Then go to Oz, or NZ or Canada in the New Year.What do you know of Montreal or Vancouver?
On a completely different subject I have now seen three episodes of the new series of Extras on YouTube. I deem them to be of a very high quality.Much better than the first series. But a real big nod to Curb Your Enthusiasm with the whole self-referential, is-it-the-real-me-or-is-it-not type stuff.
That is all
Thursday, October 19, 2006
We are but soldiers in a war, and these are the weapons I have been given.
These are the SAC textbooks (Shane Advanced Course), helpfully colour coded via nonsensical spectrum: Green, Yellow, Orange, Red, Purple, Blue, Silver.
Coincidentally these are also the colours of the bruises sustained by my ego when I teach from them.
Here we see an excerpt from one of these enthralling tomes. This is the last unit of the top level textbook. If you look closely the unit is about Cornwall. The grey box at the bottom says:
Where is Cornwall? And why do people go there?
Two questions I’ve often asked myself.
I’m joking, obviously. I know where Cornwall is.
This picture is from one of the kids’ books.
Here we see an all-too common domestic situation: a dragon asking a chipmunk if there is a lemon in the fridge.
Take a look at the picture, because I have a few concerns about this:
First, though out of shot, I should tell you that the chipmunk is fully clothed. Presumably, then, it is accepted that this is a world where animals adopt human characteristics. But if that is so, this must mean the dragon is sat drinking his tea totally bollock naked.
Actually, I lie. He is wearing a tie. Either way I’m disgusted. I tell you, scratch the surface of suburbia and those no telling what you’ll find.
Second, all that appears to be in the fridge is five eggs, a melon and a fish fillet. What are they going to cook with that? Even contestants on Ready Steady Cook have access to basic provisions.
The dragon, realising with no lemon he’ll be having fish-melon omelette again tonight thinks “I’m pissed off. I know he’s OK with my being a naturist and everything, but this whole lemon incident is just typical. He hasn’t bought any bog roll for ages, either.”
Meanwhile back in the real world, I am meant to use this as a basis for two, 60 minute lessons. Let me make this clear. That is “Very Difficult”.
I think in this lesson I would invite the children to give me a postmodern critique of the picture page, asking them to consider the interplay between the dynamism of the anthropomorphic symbology and its juxtaposition within a contemporary environment.
They love all that stuff, don’t they, kids?
2 and a half months late, but never mind. They would have thrown one sooner apparently but, such was the chronic shortage, there weren’t actually enough teachers to cobble together to make a party worthwhile. Hence they had waited 2 months and saved up enough new recruits to justify the expenditure.
It was held in an izakaya - a traditional Japanese inn – and was a proper-sit-cross-legged-at-a-very-low-table type affair. There was food and beer, and it was all good. Apart from the pork cheek kebab which like was chewing on a pig’s arse.
Any road, I met a brand new teacher called Dan that night and briefly exchanged a few pleasantries. His first lesson was the very next day and he was full of enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
Fast forward 3 weeks. Tonight, I saw him on the train back from Takashimadaira.
I caught up with him on the platform and asked him how he was getting along. “Nightmare” he said, this time with no enthusiasm, before proceeding to unload his woes.
He’d had such a bad first day that he’d phoned second-in-command Neil at head office to say he’d had enough already. He’d also asked that Neil come down and give him a hand in the lessons, as the kids were apparently running amok.
Although I hadn’t resorted to phoning head office, his experiences were a carbon copy of my first week – the kids, the lessons, the set-up.
“Nobody is telling me what I should be doing. I just feel like there’s no support” he concluded.
As he told his tale, I could do nothing but nod sagely. He was right about everything. It’s so reassuring to hear someone reach the same conclusions.
So I decided to give him some Mr Miyagi-like advice:
* Don’t worry about the standard of the lessons to start with. Just concentrate on getting out alive.
* The Shane manual’s suggested lesson plans are often bollocks. If something doesn’t work, dump it. If it works, bank it and use week after week (young kids love repetition).
* You are pretty much unsackable. Shane is desperate for teachers. Unless you have done something unspeakably bad eg using classes to try out your new ultra-racist stand-up comedy routine, they cannot afford to lose you.
He seemed to find it all very useful. He thanked me as we parted company at Akabane station.
I feel like a ‘Nam veteran. Or rather a ‘Pan veteran. I might get a tattoo.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
At 6.30am there was another earthquake. Had I been asleep, I may not have even noticed, but after drinking a litre of water just before I went to bed, I had just got up to have a tinkle.
I’d just dived back in to bed when there was a bang and the whole flat began to shake. In fact, wobble is probably more accurate or maybe very rapid swaying.
My flat is basically a tin can slotted into a huge Meccano shelving unit, and consequently all I could hear all around was the bell-like ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting of the metal bolts, fixtures and fittings as they “tinged“ off each other.
By this point I was wide awake and contemplating my next move. The flat had been shimmying for about 30 seconds now, and my thoughts turned to the metal stairwell which zedded its way down to ground level from my third floor suspended walkway. If that falls off, I thought, I’m going to have to do a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style wire-jump on to the neighbour’s roof.
But soon it had stopped. And I had gone back to sleep.
In my many chats with the residents of this city, I have often asked if there are any areas of Tokyo which are dangerous or that I should stay away from. Usually they ponder this for a while, before saying “Oh yes…..do you know Kabuki-cho San-chome?”.
Now, I’ve been to Kabuki-cho San-chome and it’s about as dangerous as Royal Tunbridge Wells. The area, just behind Shinjuku station, is home to Japan’s “adult entertainment” district – strip bars, restaurants, knocking shops, DVD stores, curry houses and late-night hostess bars.
At night it’s populated by all and sundry – young kids with their big hairdos, dolled-up women in knee-high socks and Japanese businessmen diving surreptitiously into darkened doorways.
But really, it’s actually not that much different to Soho. And it certainly seems no more dangerous.
Scottish Dave and I put this to Kozue, our Sendagi school manager, last night over beer and Japanese Tapas (Japas). Predictably, and without prompting, she had named and shamed Kabuki-cho San-chome as an area to stay away from.
Pursuing the issue, Dave and I went on to tell her about problems on housing estates in Great Britain – drugs, joyriding, mugging etc – and cited examples such as Hackney, Peckham and The Gorbals in Glasgow. “These are places we would never go into” we added.
“Really?” she said, looking surprised “I can’t think of anywhere like this in Tokyo”.
And this does seem to be the case. There are no real housing estates in Tokyo, and what penury and poverty exists appears to be hidden. Only the occasional homeless person tips you off that all may not be well in this near-perfect society. And even he appears to have a better standard of clothes than your average London tramp.
As a footnote, I had asked the question about dangerous areas of Tokyo to a student I teaching for a one-off lesson yesterday.
“Oh, don’t go to Kabuki-Cho San Chome” she said “It’s very dangerous”
“Why?” I asked.
“The Gays” she said
At this point, I thought that she had maybe selected the wrong word. I looked at her in puzzlement in an attempt to her coax her in to explaining herself.
She took my signal and scrabbled for her little electronic translator, tapping at it for few seconds before saying:
“Ah....I mean. ..homosexuals”
Had I been drinking a cup of tea I might have spit out in a comedy style.
“Er “I said “Why could they possibly be dangerous?”
“They drink a lot” she said
“What?!” I said, not trying to disguise that I was a bit narked.
I did try to take her on and to argue her down, but you could see from the blank expression on her face she wasn’t really sure what was I trying to say.
Namely, there’s no sub-cultural group or community on Earth less dangerous than, as she puts it, “The Gays”. When was the last time you saw a gay riot?
Stupid cow. And this wasn’t some old fuddy-duddy either; it was a 30-year old nurse. Pity because she was actually quite attractive. And we all know what nurses get up to.
Later I recounted this tale to the school manager. “Hmm...people in Japan not as open-minded as London” she said with an almost defeatist tone.
If you remember Jun is the businessman who, although initially appearing rather repressed, revealed that he goes out after work and gets so drunk that if you mapped out his human genome it would spell ”blotto” in chromosomes.
I had prepared a lesson on horoscopes to help him practise describing personal traits, and thought as a nice lead-in we could brainstorm ways of predicting the future. Tucked underneath my textbook was small piece of paper where I had jotted some ideas: crystal ball, tarot cards, palm reading.
“So Jun” I said “What methods of predicting the future are there?”
“Tramps” he responded
“Tramps?” I said quizzically, hoping my tone and expression would force him to correct himself.
“Tramps. Yes” he said nodding sagely
Well obviously he’s just got the wrong word, I thought
But then those thoughts turned to Jun’s after-hours exploits and I wondered if that, after a heavy salaryman sauce session, he’d perhaps happened upon a magic tramp with the power to predict the future.
Then later when he got home, maybe he had told his wife all about the tramp that lived in the alley behind the karaoke bar, and she had made him sleep in the spare room. Just as the tramp had predicted.
Akabane town square is home to some of the most piss-poor street performers I have ever seen. They make the “standing-very-still” twats in Covent Garden look like Cirque du Soleil.
My favourite was the man who was treating morning commuters to what I can only describe as a song and dance routine.
He was dressed in lemon dungarees and accompanied his indecipherable warbling with a series of dance moves based on a 1980s Soviet gymnastic routine - all robotic arm movements, star jumps and stiff-limbed “balances”. In his hand he held a small plastic maraca which fizzed noisily with each diagonal slash of his windmilling arm.
People ignored him. I think he was a bit special.
However, the week after, the town square was home to these Taiko drummers. And it was bloody fabulous.
You don’t realise how loud these thing are; you can feel it inside your chest. Without wanting to resort to sappy clichés, the almost primal beating and accompanying war-like roars from the drummers instantly conjure up images of invading oriental hordes, rain-soaked samurai battles and mystic temples showered by sheets of arrows. A real Akira Kurosawa moment.
These were only kids as well. I’d love to see this done properly.
Incidentally, that day, Dungaree Maraca Man was not in sight.
As I suspected, no Thursday off for me.
If you are on sick standby, between the hours of 9am and 10am you sit and stare at the phone very hard and concentrate on not making it ring.
My concentration obviously wavered around 9.45, when the shrill electronic tones of my mobile cut through the silence.
Damn. I answered it hoping it was the boss just ringing me up to say “...just thought I’d call to let you know we think you’re doing a super job and that you should have the week off”.
An admittedly very ill sounding girl came on the phone. “Hello. My name is Katie. Can you cover my lessons for me?”
So it was off to a random school for me for a day of teaching random students. 6 hours of lessons lay ahead of me. This was on top of the 6 I had done the day before, and the 5 and a half the day before that.
After luckily spotting a misprint in the Shane manual which would have sent me about 20 miles in the wrong direction, I set off. I was knackered before even I got there, so I spent the journey working on a very strongly worded internal monologue.
The day wasn’t bad. The school was nice and clean and the receptionist was gorgeous. She said she previously been a model. Obviously, I was intrigued to find out whether she had been a model, or a “model”.
Alas it was a model. Otherwise I could have used Gena’s chat-up line “Haven’t I seen you on the internet?”
Classes were fairly straightforward, if a little unrewarding. First up some housewives. Nowhere near as amiable or chatty as my regular lot.
The unofficial head of the group had a man’s haircut and wore huge, smoky Randolph Aviator shades, which she peered through with a steely gaze. She looked like a lesbian hitwoman.
Sat opposite her was a 60something woman with blue hair. And I don’t mean some light purplish rinse. We’re talking TARDIS blue here. Had her head been capable of an owl-like rotation, she could have doubled as a police siren. I resisted the urge to consider whether collar and cuffs matched.
Actually, I just did, when I typed that. Damn.
Then it was a class of 7 year-olds who took me by surprise on account of them being rather thick. Most kids of their age know the alphabet – my kids certainly do – but this lot knew next to nothing.
At first their wild guesses to my letter cards were amusing then, after a while, infuriating.
It went down something like this:
I had put down a card with a “b” on it. The “b” looked like a banana. This is because banana begins with a “b”. Come on, keep up. So….
Me: What letter?
Kid 1: er...F?
Kid 2: K?
Kid 1: F?
Me: No......not F. What letter?
Kid 3 (suddenly very loudly): Q!!!
Kid 1: F?
Me: Right......stop saying F. It’s not F. OK? What letter?
Kid 4 (even louder): P!!!
Kid 1: F?
Me (under breath): For fucks sake
More interesting, the class was headed up by the hilariously named Won-Suk. Draw your own conclusions.
Wearily, I made my way home, ready for another two days of teaching. My next day off is Sunday. They can’t take that off me.
At least I hope not.
Monday, October 09, 2006
“Wow. Tokyo in 2006. Imagine that: there’ll be teleporting stations and everybody will be living in pods in the sky”
Well, not quite. But not far off.
Yesterday, I went to Odaiba. In Japanese, it means “fortification”, and is a kind of semi man-made island type-thing off the South West coast of Tokyo. Apologies for the inelegant phrasing, but to be honest I’m not exactly sure how it came into being.
Odaiba is, for the most part, a glimpse of the 21st Century as it was seen by people in 20th Century: gleaming skyscrapers; sleek criss-crossing transport networks; impossibly-wide concrete boulevards with obtuse modern art sculptures positioned at junctions of pedestrian walkways.
I bloody loved it. There’s something about the cold, clinical precision and antiseptic perfectionism that appeals.
Similarly, it puts you in a cinematic frame of mind. Indeed it’s reminiscent of those films whose vision of the future was not dystopian - eg Blade Runner - but rather utopian; a perfect, sleek, stylised future. Look at films like Gattaca, A.I and Equilibrium......and also have a good look at your iPod.
And to my 7 year-old self I would say this: there is indeed a place called The Teleport Station. I’m not sure what happens there, although I’m guessing it’s not teleporting in the real sense.
Also, although people don’t live in pods in the sky, they can get a great view over Odaiba and across Tokyo Bay from the brushed steel observation pod atop Fuji Television’s HQ.
Here are some lovely photos. They're above this post because as we all know, you read a blog from bottom to top.
I bet you've already looked at the photos, haven't you. Tsk.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
There’s a typhoon on the way. Shit.
Usually, it’s the Southern Japanese islands of Shikoku and Kyushu that get a right kicking, but this time boffins have said it may reach Tokyo. And we all know never to argue with boffins.
If it hits, it will be on Monday. My day off. Can’t work out whether this is a “good thing” or a “bad thing”.
By way of an overture, we’ve been having some good storms complete with hard core lightning. If you were out in it, it was not so much singing in the rain, as singeing in the rain.
Realising that we were in for a bit of a rough ride, I was overjoyed to find an old rain cape that Paul had left behind. I think he’d used it on a rafting trip in Thailand or something.
This morning I ventured out wearing 1 anorak (bought at Next in Burton on Trent), 1 rain cape (from a raft in Thailand), and sporting a ¥200 umbrella I found behind the washing machine in my flat. And I still got soaked.
Above is a picture of a brolly I found in the street. As you can see the wind has wrecked it. There was two other brollies strewn close by, both in the same condition.
So, yes, it’s raining. At least I hope it is. It could be that the world is ending. This apocalyptic torrent has already caused me grief tonight and the typhoon isn’t even here yet. Here’s why:
Misato school is in the arse-end of nowhere serviced by only one line; the Mushashino line. About 7 o’ clock school manager Hitomi peered out the window, through the hardcore downpour, and over to the station, and said:
Hitomi: I am watching to see if they shut down the Mushashino line. They always shut it down in bad weather
Me: Er.....OK....how do I get home then?
Hitomi: Hahahaha. Yes
Me: Yes what?
Hitomi: Yes. Good question.
Me (expectantly): Right.......so.........
(24 seconds of silence)
Me: Er....OK....can I take a bus?
Hitomi: No. No bus.
Hitomi (wincing): Oooh no!
(24 more seconds of silence)
This was a big problem. For those of you who live in London, this was a bit like being stuck in somewhere like Rickmansworth or Chorleywood and needing to get home to Clapham when the only overland line is down.
Luckily, I was rescued by one of my students.....
The Dynamic Duo
Enter Yoshinori. He’s 30 years - old and one cool mofo. He wears a baseball cap at a slightly jaunty “rap” angle and also sports a wicked, wispy Fu-Man-Chu beard.
I’ve recently started saying to him: “What’s the story, Yoshinori?”. He loves this and echoes it back with a double pointing of the fingers, like some kind of Oriental Fonzie.
He shares the class with one other lad – Takashi – who is poles apart from Yoshinori. Takashi is 20 years old, rather bookish and probably likes space or something. They are both sound as a pound and recently the lessons have become far more relaxed - a bit like mates sat round having a chat. I like that.
Seeing I was getting a bit agitated about how the chuffing hell I was going to get home, Yoshinori intervened.
“Fideep” he said “If train been cancelled come back to school. I will take you in my car”
I shook his hand firmly. Top man!
“How will I know if the train has been cancelled, though” I said
Takashi stepped in “I will check for you. Come with me to station”.
Minutes later we were out in the street getting battered by sheet rain. When we arrived in the station people were shaking their umbrellas and matting down their damp hair whilst craning to see the scrolling messages. Clearly the trains were on the blink.
“One minute, please” said Takashi and went over to talk to a rather burly man behind a little window. They jabbered for a bit, before Takashi came back and said “There is train at platform right now. But will travel slowly. Come quick”
He buzzed himself through the gates with his Penguin Card (their version of the Oyster Card) and we raced up the escalator. The train was at the platform and I dived on. Takashi waited at the platform to see me on the train, and even fired a quick “Minami-Urawa desu ka?” across to the train guard to confirm I was on the right train.
“See you next week” he shouted as the doors closed
“Ja matane li shu” I echoed back “and say thanks to Yoshinori”
What a pair of top blokes.
I tell you what though - the Japanese really know how to name their natural disasters.
Words like typhoon and tsunami are so much more menacing and effective than, say, twister - which sounds like an icelolly - or monsoon - which sounds like a posh dress shop. And in Australia, they have The Willy –Willies, so insert your own joke here.
I’ll try to keep you updated as the eye of the storm moves closer. And I thought I met end on a literary note:
Hey ho, the wind and the rain
For the rain it raineth every day
It’s the final rhyming couplet from Twelfth Night, you philistines.
It was written by some fella called William Shakespears.
He was like this man who like wrote plays ages ago and looked a bit like that actor Thingy Fiennes. You know - that bloke who keeps walking to the South Pole or something.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
I really do appreciate it. Teaching English out here is quite a solitary job, so it’s good to hear from my friends.
Keep reading and keep posting. Or I’ll get the hump.
First up we have The Housewife Cabal, a phalanx of five flirty 55 year-olds who treat the class as a kind of an unofficial WI meeting.
Nevertheless, they throw themselves into the exercises as if their lives depended on it, remember all the vocab I teach them and not only do their homework but the following week’s homework as well.
Next, we have the five year-olds, who are fantastic. They are excited, giggly, incredibly sharp and, best of all, well-behaved.
Finally, the rough-house that is the 8 year-olds. Full of energy, boisterous, loud and sometimes difficult to control, this class will do nothing but keep you alert.
Meet the stars of this class:
This is Yuseke (Use-Keh). He is a born comedian. Everything he does is funny. He could say: “Er” and it would be hilarious.
Here, we have from R-to-L, Yuseke, Yuki and Harafumi. Despite looking like a bulldog, Harafumi is the cleverest boy in the class. He’s so sweaty his Mum makes him wrap a towel round his neck.
He’s a lovely lad, but quite sensitive. Probably shouldn’t have implied he’s like a sweaty bulldog then, really. I take that back.
But yesterday I invented a game where everyone had a letter of the alphabet sellotaped to their back and when I called out, say, “k”, the class had to then try to rip it off the corresponding student’s back. Harafumi had protected his letter well and was the only one left in the game.
Now, he was facing the rest of the class with his back to the wall. For a moment, there was a pause before the entire class descended on him like a pack of wolves, ravaging him until they had levered over his large frame and torn the card from his back.
As he emerged from the melee he had a face like thunder. He mumbled something in Japanese, turned to face the wall and started sobbing into his forearm.
“Come on, mate. You won. Champion!” I said encouragingly, grabbing his hand and thrusting it in the air.
Nevertheless, he continued to bawl. Even Yuseke had a go at cheering him up, jabbering to him in Japanese. At least I hope he was cheering him up. He could have been saying: “Ha. You lost, you fat knacker”
After, I decided to take these photos and that cheered him up.
Out here I can be loud and proud. No longer do I have to meet people down dark alleys offering me a quick quarter pounder with cheese, or find special pubs where people crowd round a griddle in a back room.
You’ll find burgers on most menus here; from the café to the posher sit-down restaurant. They view it as genuine main course and it’s often accompanied by broccoli, cabbage and gravy. Just like a proper grown-up and everything.
You’ll also find some interesting variations: The Italian-style burger for instance comprises burger, spag bol sauce, spaghetti, potatoes, green beans, and carrots.
They’re a big fan of the combo platter too. I’ve seen many dishes here that feature a burger with a bloody great fried shrimp plonked on top.
And of course, they see nothing wrong with burger curry. And frankly, nor do I.
Hiroshi is a 66 year-old ex-advertising director. He is probably a millionaire. His English is pretty poor but nevertheless he insists on “free conversation”, ie no text book, just chat. Difficult when he can’t understand a word you’re saying.
Today, in a bid to spice up the lesson, I decided to give him a bit of a UK geography lesson. He seemed unaware of the concept of Britain, and so I crudely drew a map of the British Isles on the whiteboard, dotting in all the borders.
“Where’s this?” I asked him, pointing at England
“England?” he replied
“Good. Where’s this?” I asked, pointing at Scotland
“Good. Where’s this?” I asked, pointing at Wales
“er......” he struggled
“Begins with W” I prompted
“Ah” he said in moment of realisation “West Scotland”
So here it comes: the Japanese are what I would describe as “proud perfectionists”.
The creed by which the Japanese live their lives is so thoroughly laudable; if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing to perfection.
This permeates through every pore of its society: the streets are as clean as a whistle, the customer service is impeccable without being invasive, the people are immaculately turned out with collar nor cuff left unironed.
And of course, public transport is robotically efficient.
Of course, there does appear to be a downside on this quest to eschew the substandard. Namely, the Japanese work so bloody hard.
They really love working. And even those that don’t love working have to pretend they do.
I was speaking to Jun about this. He works six days a week and unwinds by getting royally whammoed on a Saturday night.
“When will you retire?” I asked him
“I am 54. In 20 years” he said.
“If you could give it up tomorrow, would you?” I said
“Of course” he said ”But working hard is Japanese style”
And of course, as my hardcore month demonstrated, English teachers too can do nothing but conform.
I was poring through the menu, or rather looking at the pictures, when I realised I had actually managed to decipher one of the dishes. Namely, Spaghetti Meat Sauce with Cheese - Spag Bol to you and I.
I was inspired to push on.
What made this possible was Katakana. A quick explanation which I’ll try to make as absorbing as I can:
There are three alphabets in Japanese. The first is Kanji. Kanji borrows heavily from Chinese, has maybe 12,000 characters and is based on pictograms ie the character for river (kawa) looks (supposedly) like a river.
Since, in reality, the pictures bear little resemblance to word, this means you either know it, or you don’t. Place names are usually in Kanji, as are words or concepts which are age-old eg heart, tree, book, meat and the points of the compass.
This is “book” or “hon”.
The second is Hiragana. This alphabet is used mainly to write words of Japanese origin: sushi, karate, teriyaki. It uses lots of curvy lines and sweeping strokes.
This is the Hiragana character “meh”. It reminds of a pretzel.
The last is Katakana and thank God for this alphabet. It is a relatively recent invention and is used to spell out words new to the language eg Wesley Snipes, Belgium and Chicken McNuggets.
I’d love to see a pictogram for that last one. I’d also like to know of any other blog that has a sentence containing Wesley Snipes, Belgium and Chicken McNuggets.
The thing about Katakana is it’s phonetic. Learn the sounds for the symbol, read it out loud, and you’ve probably come reasonably close to saying the word.
Initially, when you look at a label such as this, you are dumbfounded.
But break it down into the sounds and you get this
Chi-Yor-Kor-Pah-Eee. Or Choco Pie.
OK so the label is in English. And there’s a picture on the box, as well. But you get the point.
Still there’s a long way to go, so I’m going to keep practising.
Though it has been said, largely by one man, that I have no talent for analogies, I have nevertheless concocted a series of them in order to overstate my point.
Teaching is like:
* Shovelling fog with a garden fork
* Juggling some bees
* Trying to send a text message whilst wearing boxing gloves
* Piling Ferrero Rocher into a pyramid in preparation for the Ambassadors Reception
* Knocking one out with your left hand (I’m talking about boxing, obviously)
* Transferring beer from a half-pint glass to pint glass whilst drunk
* Collecting up all your dirty socks in one big swooping armful, dropping one, bending down to pick it up, dropping another, bending down to pick that one up as well, dropping another etc
The kids provide the thrust of this randomness. They each have their own set of variables, their own motivations, their own characteristics. Put them all in a room together and it’s like a giant random number generator with infinite educational outcomes.
you have managed to get one kid to start exercise 2, but another one has gone for a wander
you get him sat down and looking at his book
then someone is tugging at your trouser leg saying “teacher, teacher, toilet”
then one of the girls hasn’t got a pink pencil
“doesn’t matter” I say and suggest colouring the pig orange
“no, I want pink” says the girl
“well, borrow hers when she’s finished with it” I say
two boys are swordfighting with their pencils
“stop that and get on with your work” I say
“teacher, teacher, toilet” says another girl
“where’s your homework?” I say to another boy
“no homework” he replies indignantly, as if I’m an idiot for even assuming he’d done it
teacher, no blue pencil” “
“well, colour the sky.....er......just borrow his”
“ teacher, bye bye time?” says a lad
“no, not yet...10 minutes” I reply
“teacher, teacher, toilet” says another girl
Anyway you get the general idea.
Face Like A Bulldog Licking Piss Off A Thistle.....
Occasionally, things go well. Today I had a very good lesson with my 7 and 8 year olds. Everything was going according to plan.
But as the closing rhyming couplet from Dark Side Of The Moon suggests.....
Everything under the Sun is in tune
But the Sun is eclipsed by the Moon
.....someone will always spoil your fun. Namely, one particular girl. Why is she so chuffing miserable? I have spoken about her before http://philsjapanblog.blogspot.com/2006/09/hey-kids-im-groovy-teacher.html
By the look on her face, you’d think I’d personally executed Santa in front of the whole class, then spent the rest of the lesson sporting his bloodstained beard.
“No presents this year, kids; Santa has just died from his horrific injuries”
Actually, all I’ve asked her to do is run to the board and draw a picture. Not difficult.
I remember the first time I ever taught this class on my first day. Halfway through the lesson, she let out the most dejected sigh I’ve ever heard. I’ve never heard apathy sound so venomous. She just might as well have said “Go home, mate. You’re a waste of space”.
At the time, it cut me pretty deep what with it being my first day and all. But now I realise it’s just her way.
I have spoken to the School Manager about her, positioning it as concern over her lack of participation.
I resisted the urge to suggest that she “just cheer the f*** up”
Note I said “in” the toilet and not “on” the toilet. This is because today I was putting the finishing touches to the perfect squat toilet technique. You may remember that one of my earliest posts was on this subject http://philsjapanblog.blogspot.com/2006/07/9th-july.html
It occurred to me that my experiences with Japanese squat toilets and my experiences as a teacher were identical: the first time you do it’s degrading, you’re unsure of the correct procedure, and hesitate and you’ll make a mess.
And, the corollary to that is, as my squatty technique improves so does my teaching.
Incidentally, on that subject, had a great one today. Everything went according to plan with no mistakes.
Taught a good lesson as well
(bum-tish)Thanks ladies and gentlemen, you’ve been a great audience.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
This time the exercise required that the students imagine their perfect day, one week from today, thus allowing them to construct sentences in the future continuous tense - eg this time next week I will be sailing a yacht across the Indian Ocean/ this time next week I will be shagging Keira Knightley etc
“So” I said after giving them thinking time “On your perfect day, what will you be doing at 10am”
Satoshi: I will be listening to a CD
Maybe his perfect day hasn’t started yet, I thought. He’s relaxing in preparation for the tsunami of fun.
Me: So, what will you be doing at 2 o’ clock?
Satoshi: I will be watching TV
Me: OK......this is your perfect day, remember.....what will you be doing at 6 o’ clock?
Satoshi: I will be eating my dinner
Me: Righ.....interesting.....this is your perfect day, remember ....you can do anything you want .....what will you be doing at 11 o’clock ?
Satoshi: I will be sleeping
Brilliant. What an exciting day this man is going to have. I bet he can’t wait till next week when these untold pleasures and epicurean delights can be his.
The rest of us poor sods will just have to be content with listening to CDs and watching TV while we have a bit of dinner.
Occasionally, as you might imagine, I ask my students questions.
Occasionally, as you might imagine, the responses are quite funny. Most of the time unintentionally.
Enter Jun: a 54 year-old businessman who works 6-days a week as an accountant at a plastic packing firm. He likes jazz music and opera.
I’m not sure he’s suited to this school, however; Shane’s adult textbooks contain roleplays encouraging students to practise dialogue in conversational settings and Jun’s your quintessential “salaryman”; very serious and very rarely willing to enter into the spirit of the exercises.
In advance of Jun’s lesson, I usually flip through the textbook muttering to myself:
“No...he won’t do that....or that.....or this.....”
“....and what’s this exercise? Ask the student to pretend to be a famous rock star while you pretend to be an interviewer asking questions in the present perfect tense? Not. A. Chance”
One on occasion, however, I did manage to prise out of him that he greatly admired opera singer Maria Callas. Great, I thought, there’s an exercise in this lesson about asking questions in the simple present - with a little adaptation this could work.
“So, Jun” I said “Think about the tense we’ve been discussing – the simple present. If you met your heroine, Maria Callas, at a party and had the opportunity to ask one question and one question only, what would it be?”
He stared off into the middle distance for a second, lost in thought. Then he said: “What is your favourite food?”
Brilliant. I bet she’d be bowled over by that. Imagine how that would play out:
Maria’s Friend: Maria, there is a man here who is a big fan of yours. You simply must meet him. This is Jun.
Maria: Hello Jun. It’s nice to meet you.
Jun: What is your favourite food?
Maria: Oh...I don’t know......fettuccine?
Jun: OK. Bye.
I did consider titling this post “Jun The Turd”, but despite it being a rather witty pun, I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I really have warmed to him.
Especially since today he confessed that after work he goes out, gets hammered, goes to a hostess bar, carries on drinking until he’s on Braille, then on to a karaoke bar where he treats “many, many beautiful girls” to a special rendition of New York, New York by “Flank Sinatra”.
Schedules are out for next month and, as promised by Shane, mine looks a bit thinner this time. I have two sick cover days and providing no one is ill on those particular days, I have a fairly normal month.
It will be just my luck, however, that some untimely Shane-annigans will scupper the relative, potential peace and quiet of October.
I predict something will change; some subtle alteration, some imperceptible adjustment which, in the time it takes for The Language School Butterfly to flap its wings, will have become a Tropical Shit Storm for me.
Not much a “whether” forecast as a “when” forecast, I think.
Well that’s the end of my third six-day week this month. Today, I’m OK. Yesterday I was so, so tired. At irregular intervals my knees kept buckling ever-so-slightly as if legged over by an invisible dwarf.
Fatigue set in after two back-to-back classes of 9 and 10 year olds. The first class was a group of delinquent boys, not one of them with an IQ above a piece of toast.
One of them was so horrifyingly ugly he looked like a Mr Potato Head arranged in the dark. Another appeared to be growing a tache. Generally, they were rowdy, uncooperative and, when pressed for an answer, alarmingly dim.
However, for all their sins, they were rather entertaining. In contrast, the second class comprised a troupe of thoroughly dour, surly and downright rude 10 year-olds.
They moaned, griped, sighed, whined, whinged and harrumphed their way through the lesson. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if you don’t want to be here, piss off.