Sunday, February 28, 2010

You Talk Funny

I am going to recommend this article for two reasons:

First because it is a nice ode to a teacher and shows how good teachers can influence so many people's lives.

Second because the second paragraph contains the sentence "In his impenetrably thick Ukrainian accent, he would berate us for being out of tune..."

Why do I mention that? Why do you think? I believe this former students paean to a departed teacher illustrates an important connection that Japan is sadly missing out on; that people who were born in other countries can teach your children and positively impact their lives. You may think this is self-serving and I am just talking about me and my job status. I am, but the story is larger.

Japanese people live in a country synonymous with a language. That language has many accents, most of them celebrated. From Osaka comedy to Tokyo business out to thee barriers of Kagoshima and Aomori indecipherableness, Japanese regional accents each have their own character. What Japanese people have trouble with is people speaking Japanese as a second language. That is an accent that can only be celebrated through buffoonery, witness Bobby, or any other TV clown. Speaking to a good deal of the Japanese public is a bit like the bartender in Anchorman attempting to inspire Ron Burgundy only to be told, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Spanish." It often isn't the quality or intelligence of what is being said, but rather the willingness and ability to hear it. I am not just making this claim as someone with hurt feelings but as someone who's job it is to teach a foreign language to people who have no concept of people being useful speaking a foreign language, usually with an accent.

Mr. K. in the article, had a rough life. He also had an uplifting life. If he has decided to ply his trade in Japan he would have been forced to teach outside his subject, switch schools every year or so and always be accompanied by a Japanese citizen. Why? Well, his brand of discipline, or any discipline for that matter, would be against the law for a foreigner to implement. Now, I know the contrary argument; Good thing he didn't teach in Japan, but anyone can choose to not teach in Japan. Well, yes and no. LIfe is complicated for lots of us and it isn't always choices about job equity that keep us where we are. A more larger argument that I would make is that I love my students and I feel bad that their country won't give them the opportunity to be taught and driven and inspired by teachers from various backgrounds.

Last week I was teaching a particularly bad 2nd year class. One of the boys was constantly flicking off a girl in class. I told him to stop what he was doing as it was rude. He asked, "What does this mean?" I answered that you probably shouldn't go around doing something if you didn't know what it meant, but that, as an American, I thought it was rude and not something you should do in class. He replied, "But this isn't America." "True, but I am American and I am teaching this class and I am telling you to stop." His friend chimed in from the back "Why are foreigners here teaching us anyway? Japan is for Japanese people." Now, this is a pretty silly argument and is far from offending my sensibilities. However, I felt kind of bad for them and their limited world and I felt bad about a school system that, in my opinion, reinforces these opinions. Reading this article I felt good about America and that, growing up, we do get to experience people from backgrounds that aren't our own. I only think it helps to make us better people and I think Japan will pay the price for its approach in the long run.

1 comment:

The Morholt said...

All too often I feel like an imperialist here; the 50 year old guy who rolls a handcart by to pick up the trash even wants me to help him learn more English. "Tresh, se dice tresh en Ingles, si?"
There are good historical reasons for the Japanese attitude, just that their role in the world has outgrown the isolationist xenophobia that apparently still holds sway there.
Leave it to Wes to find an interesting angle on a story I would have dismissed as sentimental.

attempting to silence the voices in my head.