Monday, December 19, 2005

A Christmas Story in Tokyo

Strolling down the street in Shibuya one evening after eating a very tasty Thanksgiving dinner, I couldn't believe my eyes! Each year I watch A Christmas Story with my family, and we always laugh at the lamp the father buys himself for Christmas. Well, here are two of them, right here in Tokyo! What a fun place Shibuya is. It never disappoints!

Unexpected honor

Last week my three classes at a prestigious university here in Tokyo ended. They were small classes of third-year students and, over the semester, we began to feel comfortable with each other. Each week students had to get up in front of the class to speak spontaneously and problem-solve a particular case study or article they had just read. It would be tough enough for a native English speaker to do this, but these students were speaking English as a second language.

Each week the students worked together in groups and got to know each other a little. At the same time, I got to know them a little. After each presentation, I congratulated them on their courage, and encouraged them to keep practicing their English, even after graduation.

At the end of their final presentations, I again congratulated them on their hard work and wished them well on their life's journey. I told them how much I had enjoyed teaching them, and how honored I was to have known them—even for this brief time.

When I was finished, my entire class rose to give me a standing ovation.

That's when I knew, for the first time, that I really was a teacher. I almost cried.

Up close and personal

There was a fire about two blocks from my house and I managed to get some pictures and videos. Apparently, it started in the small restaurant downstairs and spread to the apartments up above. When I got there, firemen were running everywhere, and a couple of people were being loaded into an ambulance with smoke inhalation. I heard that a man had jumped from the upstairs window and was slightly hurt, but didn't see him.

So many alarms were sounded that I thought it was Armageddon! I suppose with houses and businesses built so close together it wouldn't take much to raze an entire city.

Hot tea. . .and some Vitamin Love

Got a good chuckle from one of my students recently. We were studying from the chapter on health, which included giving and asking for advice regarding health matters, and talking about home remedies.

Here sat a shy, 40-something businessman, married with a couple of kids. Since our teaching method always includes role plays, I said we would do a role play where he was sick, and I would pretend to be his wife and offer him some home remedies.

Me: You look terrible. What's wrong?
Him: I have a terrible cold and a fever.
Me: Can I bring you some hot tea with lemon?
Him: Yes, that would be nice. Thank you.
Me: Do you need anything else?
Him: Yes (with a big, silly grin). Some Vitamin Love.

We both laughed so hard we could barely finish the lesson. Who said Japanese can't be funny?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A plain, brown paper wrapper

One of the sights I've come to know and love around Tokyo comes in a plain, brown paper wrapper.

In America, we think of a plain, brown paper wrapper as something that might contain porn. I was suspicious the first time I saw it. Turns out that plain, brown paper wrappers adorn all books sold in Tokyo (and maybe all of Japan—I don't know for sure). The first time I bought a paperback book, the clerk quickly and skillfully folded a plain, brown paper jacket around it and dropped it into a paper bag, which was then dropped into a plastic bag. (Yes, the Japanese are into overkill when it comes to wrapping things!)

After giving this some thought, I realized that many Japanese read books on their daily train rides. While they may have to ride crowded trains, like sardines in tin cans, they apparently want to maintain their privacy when it comes to their reading tastes.

I've also noticed that the books are quite short—maybe only 100 pages or so. If you're an aspiring author who wants to write for Japanese consumption, you would do well to remember the K.I.S.S. rule. I don't see anyone here lugging around huge, 800-page books, no matter how popular they might be in America. Most Americans have cars and don't need to consider how much weight to put into a bag they have to haul around on a shoulder all day.

So, small books in plain, brown paper wrappers, are quite practical.

Now, if only something could be done about the businessmen who carry sleazy newspapers or magazines and insist on reading them in front of everyone—children and old ladies included. One time, in the middle of the afternoon, I saw a businessman sit with his sex-kittens newspaper folded for all to see as he read something on an inside page. A little boy around 7 or 8 years old jumped out of his seat and dashed over to the man, stood in front of him, bent down and had a good look at the newspaper. The man looked up and gave the boy a withering look. He reluctantly went back to his seat, but kept his eyes on the pictures of feminine delights in provocative poses.

Too bad that certain newspapers and magazines don't come in plain, brown paper wrappers.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A matter of curiosity about the world

As I prepare to leave on vacation in 2-1/2 weeks, I can't help noticing some comments from a few students at our learning center. Thankfully, it's only from a few, but it still managed to leave me scratching my head.

This week I asked one young woman, a high school senior, about her extensive travels. She had gone on a two-week home stay in Australia this past September, but had no idea of the name of the city in which she had lived for two weeks! It wasn't a matter of just forgetting the name because of the different names in Japanese and English.

"Well," I said, "could it have been Sydney or Melbourne?"
"I have no idea," she replied.
"Do you remember any landmarks or sites?"
"What did you do while you were there?"
"Nothing," she replied. "I stayed in my room."

She truly had no interest whatsoever in where she stayed or what she did. I can only imagine how her host family must have felt!

This student traveled to several countries with her parents, yet resented every trip. When I asked her for something—anything—she might have enjoyed about her trip to London, she quickly answered with a smile, "Nothing." I said, "Nothing? Not one single thing?" "No," she said. "I hated all of it."

Even though this may have been a case of teenage rebellion against parents who try to control everything their children do, I found it quite puzzling and sad. Surprisingly, this same student speaks better English than most—including students and adults!

A few years ago some friends had a Japanese teenage girl stay with them for a month and she acted the same way. She stayed in her bedroom as much as possible—even taking her meals to her room to eat alone. When she had to travel to school each day in the car, she never said a word.

Another teacher told me about one of his adult students who said she had just returned from a 5-day trip to Paris. To his horror, she reported that she had sat in her hotel room for the entire five days because it was "too cold to go out."

On the other hand, fortunately, I had another student, a young business man, who told me all about his third trip to Africa where he stayed out in the bush and photographed wildlife. I could tell by the way he spoke how much Africa had impressed him. He was in love with it!