Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kumquat. What, What!

This is a kumquat. It's in a tea cup. It's cute.

And it's a for real fruit! Five days ago the only thing I knew about "kumquat" is that it's a funny word to call someone. That's all. If I had to take a multiple choice test and the question was "What is a kumquat" I might have gotten it right, depending on the other choices.

I probably would have picked "fairy tale villain" and "1970s anime character" over "a fruit" but other than that I think I would have come out on top. But if it was a fill in the blank test I would have been at a loss. And I never would have guessed a kumquat looks exactly like an orange for dolls. Who would think a fruit with such a sweet, sweet name would be such a poser in the looks department?

For lunch there is occasionally dessert and sometimes that dessert is fresh fruit. Fresh fruit days are always good days. When I looked down at my lunch tray and saw two mini oranges all I could say was kawaii (cute). The office lady informed me that it's called kinkan. Awesome. No idea what it was but at least I knew it's name.

As I watched the students eat their kinkan I gleaned nothing further about my mystery fruit. Most students looked like they were just eating the peel. Weird. A couple were peeling their kinkan only to be laughed at by the other students. A kid next to me was eating the whole thing, making a terrible face. The other students were laughing at him and shouting oishii?! ("is it good?!") As I do with anything in a wrapper (the fresh fruit comes packaged to guarantee freshness) I took the tiny oranges back to my desk. I'd give it a try when I got home.

The teacher in the desk next to mine happens to be one of the English teachers and was eating her kinkan. She saw mine on my desk and pointed it out, asking if I could eat kinkan. Well, I said, I don't know. I've never eaten one before. At this Andou Sensei got out her Japanese-English electronic dictionary and I was introduced to the fruit kumquat! I couldn't hold in the laughter. Kumquat. A tiny orange. Just great.

Apparently kumquats are very good for you, especially the peel. The fruit, however, is a very bitter-sour taste, akin to grapefruit on steroids I would say. The peel is even less thick than a clementine peel and tastes just like the fruit of an orange. I was told that Japanese people eat kumquats as a snack and also use the peel in homeopathic medicine.

After trying my first ever kumquat I heard a bunch of laughter and exclamations of nihonjin janai (not a Japanese person). Apparently the head teacher of the second year students had never eaten a kumquat before and, like a a couple of the students I ate with, tried to peel it and eat the insides. His response to their exclamation was to question the logic of a fruit of which you eat only the peel, his closing argument being that "Japanese people are strange."

Kumquat. Best lunch ever.

Monday, February 23, 2009

One of Those ALTs...

It didn't take long to understand how long ALTs are remembered in a small town. Maybe this isn't true of all schools/areas but in mine the ALT is usually the only exposure anyone has with people who aren't Japanese.

I especially think about this in relation to the students I interact with. I am very conscious about providing the students every opportunity to use English. And in the process I think I may have become one of those ALTs. The ALT that knows nothing about Japanese culture, refuses to use Japanese, and in general doesn't try to embrace her life here but rather tries to transplant her American life. Now obviously that's a bit of an exaggeration but I worry about how little of an exaggeration it is.

There's this worn out (though I'm sure sincere) storyline about ALTs who refuse to use Japanese with their students until one day they decide to give it a shot and find that their students ease up because they see their ALT messing up too and there's this moment of solidarity and the students and ALT form a wonderful bond that carries them through boring worksheets and exhausting exams.

As nice as this story is it will never be mine. No matter how much my Japanese improves (it can only go up from here) I will never use it in the classroom and rarely outside of it. The role I've fashioned for myself is as a communication coach. I'm their dummy; they can test out their expressions and explanations on me.

This approach is sometimes not so successful and it puts me in a position to be overlooked by the less motivated students. I realize this and it's unfortunate; I wish I could encourage all 500 students to study English but that's chotto muri (a little impossible). What I can encourage are students who will give it a try, who will bravely raise their hands and direct their question at me instead of the Japanese teacher.

This bravery has led to impromptu versions of pictionary, charades, and 20 Questions as we struggle to understand each other. Their creativity always astounds me. One student drew a timeline on his worksheet with the words "present" and "future" written on it. Pointing to the blank dot he asked, "How do you say this English?" And he learned the word for "past" that day.

As I was walking back from a class not too long where two students pulled off the pantomime for "graduate" I was smiling to myself, feeling pretty good about my method. At my desk, though, I began to think about all the students who would never try such a stunt, who might want to talk to me but are afraid that I won't understand if they need to use some Japanese. Maybe my method was a bit selfish, making them do all the work as I sit in my English bubble? Maybe I really was one of those ALTs, one who's just too scary to talk to.

However, I recently had a speaking test that confirmed that though my method is not without flaws, it can produce amazing results.

One of students went from a score of little over 50% on her last test to almost 100% on this one. Her name is Miho. She likes to draw cherry blossoms on everything. One day in class we were playing BINGO. Instead of X's she was drawing cherry blossoms in the boxes.

I pointed at the drawing and said, "Cute!" She replied with, "sakura," the Japanese word for "cherry blossom." And I said "cherry blossom." Her eyes got big and she repeated the words a couple times, giggling after each time (foreign languages are funny and I think it would be easier for adults to learn them if we felt more freedom to laugh at the silliness of foreign sounds).

And that was Miho's turnaround. No longer the sweet but apathetic student she participates in class and talks with me after class. During lunch couple days ago she came up with this description for a famous Japanese drag queen: "A large hair woman gentleman." Grammatically correct? Not entirely, no. But it is effective, isn't it?

That's what I envisioned when I began to formulate my role as a communication coach. There are a few things you to effectively communicate in another language and here's the top two: creativity and opportunity. By always using English I am providing the opportunity that they wouldn't have otherwise; though the Japanese teachers know English there's not much motivation to speak with them in English since it'd be so much easier to speak in Japanese. And the creativity, that's all them.

So maybe for some of the students I will be remembered with a little resentment as one of those ALTs. But it's things like the "graduate" pantomime and Miho's test scores that strengthen my resolve to use English, to provide the opportunity to use English for communication outside of the set textbook sentences. Different styles work for different ALTs and different schools; I am well aware that being an English test dummy won't work for everyone or even for most people. But being one of those ALTs is working for this ALT. At least for now.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Afraid of a Prize?

Well, despite living in a country where congratulating oneself is a bit unseemly I will proudly say that my Japanese is improving.

Like a lot of things in life, it took a bit of getting over myself and my fears but eventually I found myself in the position I am now where 9 times out of 10 I'm celebrating a little victory.

One thing that helped was buying a couple phrase books and relying on those more than my textbooks (read: I am no longer studying from a textbook). What's so encouraging about studying from phrasebooks is that these are the things people say everyday.

Unlike "I have been to the places marked in red on this map" which I am confident I will never hear or say in Japanese, I've already heard two people at school use "That surprized me" since learning this sentence three days ago. Eventually I'll need to get back to learning grammar, when I become constricted by the inflexibility of set phrases, but that's not now. Now I just need some things to keep the conversation going as I brush my teeth after lunch with the middle-aged music teacher.

Yet despite this encouraging progress there are still some things I fear. Today I discovered that there is such a thing as a scary prize. I know, I know. Normally I would be all about free things, especially in the form of a prize. However, not all prizes are 100% fun.

As I got in line today in the convenience store, or konbini, I noticed the woman in front of me was offered a box with Dragon Ball Z characters all over it. She reached into the box and pulled out 4 tickets (I was able to understand that the clerk had instructed her to do this). One of the tickets was a lucky one; she got a free drink. However, in order to redeem this free drink she was asked a series of questions and I wasn't able to make out even the gist of any part of these questions.

Oh crap.

I considered my options (dropping the chapstick I came to buy and running out the door, pretending to be deaf and/or blind, staring at the clerk blankly until he gives up on me) but I couldn't make a decision and found myself at the counter with the terrifying prize box taunting me and my poor Japanese.

Chapstick rung up. 313 yen paid. Now the moment of truth.

"Take one ticket," he said with the same smile all konbini clerks have. I pulled it out and noticed it didn't look like the lucky one the lady in front of me had. I was safe. I was instructed to please keep that ticket because.....and then I lost him but I just smiled back and said Hai, hai (though it means "yes, yes" this is totally noncommittal and does not denote understanding like it does in English). I made it out. Safe!

So, until this Dragon Ball Z promo blows over I might just have to avoid the konbini and the terrifying prospect of a prize.