Word Crunching!

July 22, 2009

(Originally Published 08/03/2008)

Happy International Women’s Day!  Have you randomly hugged a lady today?

Whew!  It’s been awhile, eh?  There’ve been many times when I sat down to write and even started a few times but I never ended up with anything I wanted to post despite all the things I’ve been up to recently.  There’s lots of stuff I want to say about my classes but it will have to wait for another time.

I started my second part-time job Thursday night at a little private conversation school near the grocery store near school.  I could tell from the moment I walked in what sort of “teaching” this was actually going to be.  The director of the school made it very clear to me in the orientation that this business is about keeping the customers entertained and that is top priority.  For these students, English is a game.  Sadly, quite few of them will ever get any better.  The director of the school speaks very little English at all (although she teaches a children’s class by herself) and I was surprised when I found out what kind of business this is.  It seems to me like this is a purely profit-oriented endeavor for her and the business itself feels strange – not like a school but more like a daycare.  I could tell that the contract I signed was translated into English by a computer program like Babelfish.  Usually, it is not too difficult to understand the essence of the sentence, but sometimes I have no idea how anyone could think that was a real English sentence.  For example, the following instructions:

I talk by a learning language if possible,

When I do not understand it,

I change it into the words that I crunched easily,

and please use the Japanese when I do not still understand it.

Here’s the original Japanese:


And here’s my simple translation:

Using the learning language as much as possible, in the case that it is not understood, please change it into simpler words.  If it’s still not understood, please use Japanese.

Nothing about crunching as far as I can tell.

My new student’s name is Bob.  That’s not his real name of course but that’s what he wants me to call him and since I don’t even know his real name it will do just fine.  Bob is a prime example of the complete failure of the Japanese educational system in regards to teaching English.  Bob went through the six years of mandatory classes that are required of all Japanese students who complete high school and consequently learned very many grammar patterns.  He showed me that he had a program on his cell phone that would present to him a scrambled English sentence with which he was supposed to move the words around into the proper order.  Bob had no trouble completing this with lightning speed.  However, Bob has a complete lack of understanding of what they call at the school “practical English.”  Although Bob’s pronunciation is not bad, he can make neither heads nor tails of what’s being said to him and his responses are limited to a few vocabulary words strung together without any connecting elements.

During our second lesson together I was able to get him to open up to me a little more and to talk to me.  The first lesson it was hard to get him to even talk in Japanese but now he seems to have loosened up a bit and we had a good time together.  I found out he plays igo (i.e. go, the ancient territory board game with 19×19 crisscrossing lines and black and white stones) so at least we share a common interest that we can talk about.  When I got there the second time Bob was singing along to a tape that had useful English phrases repeated over and over to a lively jazz background and he was chanting along, taking turns with the voices on the tape.  It was actually kind of cool and I could see how it would be a good tool for practicing pronunciation and becoming more comfortable speaking and listening to fast sentences.

This last week has been a whirlwind of activity.  Monday night I had taco night with a couple of my friends.  I bought real cheese, guacamole, and tortillas at an international grocery store in Umeda and together with some homemade salsa we made some scrumptious tacos.  I cannot explain how wonderful I felt during that first bite.  Since then we’ve had other cooking adventures and last night we had milkshake night.  We made peanut butter, banana, and oreo milkshakes and they were just perfect.  We have plans to make some more milkshakes and smoothies in the future now that we’ve discovered the hidden blender in the cupboard.  Also, since sliced bread is super thick in Japan we’re going to cut it into strips and make French toast.  Another tempura night is also in queue.

I got busted the other night for having alcohol in the dorms.  I went to a small party with some friends in one of the rooms in the Seminar House and we shared cheese, crackers, and wine while discussing existential philosophy and other nerdy things like that.  We opened the window at one point and that was a mistake because apparently we made enough noise that otoosan (the “father figure” of our dormitory) was able to hear us (his room is two floors directly below) and he came up and “caught us in the act.”  We all had to write letters of apology to the school and they’re still deciding our punishments (so whatever I write here could end up incriminating me further because they do know of this blog) but I’m not going to feel guilty no matter what happens.  I am sorry if I caused any inconvenience for otoosan but I’m not sorry I had a good time with my friends and I think it is a stupid rule.  Stupid rules are just waiting to be broken and if the CIE wants to think that they nipped this “problem” in the bud then they are sorely mistaken.  I know that there is alcohol in many of the rooms here but really, what’s the problem with that?  We’re all over the legal age for drinking and as long as we’re not causing a problem to others (like some people who go out and drink and get rowdy in the park nearby) I don’t see why it should be a problem.  Being loud and disruptive, that’s a problem, but drinking quietly and conservatively with friends should not be a crime.  The staff in the office made a big deal out of it when I turned in my letter the next morning and one of them exclaimed, “I just can’t believe such good students would do something so bad!  I’m just so disappointed!”  It’s true, we are some of the most serious students at school.  I’ve talked about this with other Japanese people and they said they couldn’t understand it at all.  This puritanical goody-goody prohibition is just so silly.

I got called into the office again the next day but for a completely different reason.  A television director from one of the Osaka TV stations had come to campus and wanted to interview a few international students with unique study abroad experiences.  We talked for awhile about my epic walk to Tokyo and he said he’ll be in touch soon.  Who knows, I might end up being interviewed on a pretty popular Osaka television show!

After class the other day I went to a small performance of a jazz combo on campus.  My philosophy teacher was playing piano and another one of the gaijin professors took drums with a Japanese student on string bass.  Another Japanese student showed up and added a trumpet to their combo and later a saxophonist joined them as well.  They played some classics and I was really moved by their beautiful rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  It was so much fun to watch Professor Hanagan (my teacher) just going crazy on the piano.  He’s really, really talented and it was a joy to watch his passionate playing.  He’s such an interesting man and I’m really glad I’m taking his class.

I have been keeping tremendously busy with homework recently but I’m still doing really well in all my classes.  I just finished reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle tonight by Murakami Haruki and it was fantastic.  I definitely need to read more of his works and I think I will buy as many of them in Japanese as I can so I can work on reading them when I get back to the states.

Well, I’ve got to get to bed because I’m going to the aquarium tomorrow morning!  I’ve got all sorts of great ideas for places I want to go, I just need to find some time to get out and do it!


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