Saturday, May 31, 2008

Bad housekeeping

This is what happens when you do not clean out your closets often enough.

A Japanese man who was mystified when food kept disappearing from his kitchen, set up a hidden camera and found an unknown woman living secretly in his closet, Japanese media said on Friday.
You have been warned.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The shocking time of semester

On Monday the loopy professor asked me to hand back to my class their first big homework assignment, which she had graded. She quite often does this, although she usually gives me homework from the wrong class. I think this is the first time this semester that she has given me the right homework.

This meant that I was actually able to give it back to the students, for a change.

When I started handing it back it was interesting to hear the responses from the students. The first one got hers, and shouted,

"Yay! I got an A!" She bounced up and down in her seat happily for a while, and her friends congratulated her.

The second student got her homework, and shouted,

"Me, too! I got an A!"

The third student got her homework, and said,

"Me, too!"

The fourth student got hers,

"A," she said, looking slightly puzzled.

The fifth,


The sixth,


And so on. By the end they were sounding quite gloomy about it. Some of them had written three sentences, others had written ten, and a couple had written a whole painstaking page. They all got A.

And now they know exactly how much work they need to do to get an A from the loopy professor.

We gaijin teachers are a lot meaner. I spent today grading homework from yesterday's classes, and am looking forward to telling them their grades next week. I TOLD them I was not interested in copied homework and it would get a big fat zero. I TOLD them I was going to actually read it and give it the grade it deserved. The girl who wrote her homework in the last five minutes of the class just after I'd assigned it, and handed it to me cheerfully, pleased because she'd finished so quickly, is going to get a bit of a shock when she sees that she scored four out of twenty. The homework required a little thought – not much, but some – and she managed to get practically everything wrong by not giving it any thought at all. I ASKED her if she was sure, when she gave it to me. I reminded her that I would be checking it carefully. She was sure.

She probably won't be quite so sure next week.

The definition of 'homework' here seems to be 'a bit of paper with anything at all scribbled on it, which will get you a perfect score if you remember to hand it in.' Handing it in is the key point, apparently. And at least some Japanese professors (the loopy professor for one) reinforce this idea by giving an A to everybody. Why make an effort if you'll get an A for spelling your own name right at the top of the page (so the professor will know who to give the A to) and then scribbling any old thing?

It is the shocking time of semester, at least for my students. I am also going to tell my Friday students their grades so far on all the little class tests they've done. They seem to think that just doing them is enough, and have been turning up on time religiously, which is nice. That was the main aim of the tests. The aim was not to fail them. It was supposed to be an easy thirty percent of their grade.

More than half of them are failing, though. It doesn't seem possible, since there are never more than five questions in each test and I tell them the answers the week before. And they are always things they studied in class. I don't quite know how so many have managed to do so spectacularly badly, but they have. They must be determined to fail.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Who? Who? Who?

One of my students in my first class today surprised me. When he sat down and took his class materials out of his bag, he also took out a roll of toilet paper. He used this to blow his nose, once, but after that it just sat on his desk. It was a little distracting, like having The Man in the room with me when I was trying to teach.

The Man also uses toilet paper to blow his nose. Is this guy related to The Man? I thought. Or maybe it's a Japanese thing. Maybe Japanese snot has less penetrative properties than western snot.

If I have a cold and try to use toilet paper to blow my nose, I blow straight through it. Toilet paper is too feeble for my powerful snot. Or maybe I just blow too hard.

Today I taught all my classes how to answer unanswerable questions. I have done this before. It is always fun to see their faces when they see it is perfectly all right to answer a question with a question.

"What did he tell you?" was one of the unanswerable questions I gave them, to which they were supposed to answer,


They figured this out, but got the intonation wrong. They inflected up rather than down. I explained that wh- questions almost always have to be inflected down, and demonstrated. I got them to repeat after me.

"Who?" I said, and they all said,


Then I went around the classroom asking them some more unanswerable questions to elicit a Who?

"Where did he go?" I asked urgently, and they replied,


"Why is he angry?"


"When is he leaving?"


After a while I started to feel as though I was in a classroom full of owls, and got the giggles.

"Who? Who? Who?" I said to them, and they laughed. They thought it sounded funny, too, and hooted back at me.

I must remember to do it again next week, right after greeting them, to make sure they remember. Also, to get them in the mood to be funny, because I don't have a wonderful lesson plan for next week, and I will need all the cooperation I can get.

One of the unanswerable questions I had written for them to write responses to was this:

When is Shakespeare's birthday?

About half of the students chose an appropriate response to this (Don't ask me! I don't know!) but many of the responses made me laugh, even though they were, actually, the kind of thing I was looking for. A typical one was,

Who is Shakespeare?

It turned out that the students who had written this genuinely had no idea. They'd never heard the name before. Neither had the student who had written,

That's private!

I did not understand that response until he told me that he had imagined that he was Shakespeare (a fictional character) and was sensitive about his age.

Another student had looked it up in his very good dictionary, and written,

Shakespeare's birthday is April 23rd, 1564.

He is a very earnest student. It was nice that he had taken the trouble to look it up, but I am afraid he completely missed the point of the 'unanswerable questions' exercise. In any case, I need to rewrite the questions I'm using as examples, because that one is not working as well as it used to.

My students used to at least have heard of Shakespeare, but apparently they are not teaching that sort of thing at school any more.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Success, sort of

As I was leaving the women's university today I walked out and bumped into the loopy professor, who was chatting with another Japanese teacher outside the building. Simultaneously, a bunch of students were entering the building, and saw me.

"BADAUNT-SENSEI!" they screeched, and I turned, trying not to cringe.

"Oh, hello!" I said. "How are you?"

"Huh? What did she say?" they asked each other, in Japanese, and when they'd figured it out,


"GLAD TO HEAR IT!" I shouted back as they disappeared into the building.

The loopy professor regarded me fondly.

"Sutekina sensei desu ne," she said, and I was relieved that she had not taken offense. She could easily have done. Those were her students last year, too, and they hadn't greeted her at all.

But I think she had probably forgotten them. This is convenient, because those were the students who slammed her in the teacher evaluations. In fact I suspect that she has decided that the evaluations about me were actually about her. After all, it was HER idea to share the classes so that we each see them every other week. Therefore, if the students liked me it was all because of her wonderful idea, and she could take the credit and ignore the fact that they couldn't stand her classes. (This makes sense if you are a loopy professor.)

Today I had some of this year's more outspoken students telling me that they didn't need her classes. They only wanted mine. Couldn't they have only my classes? They REALLY didn't need her classes, they said. They couldn't understand a word she was saying, even when she spoke Japanese.

They shouted this loudly above the ambient noise of the classroom (which is earsplitting at the best of times) and I could only conclude that she probably makes them shut up, because my classes have very little opportunity to be interesting. They are way too noisy. Surely the students don't behave so badly in her classes? Surely she makes them shut up and listen? Is that why they don't like her?

I was not feeling very well, and the whole thing was getting me down.

But they wouldn't shut up for me, at least not at first. They insisted on yelling at me at the tops of their voices (in Japanese of course, even though I pretended not to understand) all about how the loopy professor's classes are boring but mine are interesting. We hadn't even managed to start yet and we were already fifteen minutes in. All I had achieved so far was to call the roll. What was interesting about that? I was getting desperate and they were having a party.

But I had already decided to give myself a break, so I was tolerant. I still have a cold and didn't have the energy to get mad. I whizzed through the unit of the textbook I have to use (which is far too difficult for them – I left out the tricky bits) and then gave them the quiz I was giving all last week at the other universities. I had removed all the questions that might possibly give them trouble, which meant about half of them. I know their level. I kept the questions like, This is an animal with a long nose and big ears, and left out the ones like, This is a perfect vacuum, full of darkness. The difficult questions would only make them give up. As it is, half of them have trouble reading English let alone understanding spoken English, and this is an oral quiz game. They have to read the questions aloud.

I also added a new rule. I told them that if the answer was in Japanese the person could get one point, but if it was in English they'd get two. This was amazingly effective in getting them to listen (to get one point even if they didn't know the English word) and to actually try to think about what the English word might be. These are competitive students. They HATE losing.

And they adored the game. In their groups they quizzed each other with their lists of questions and had a lovely time getting everything wrong and teasing each other. (And screeching. Why do they have to screech when I have a headache?) I did not have to yell at all. They did all the yelling, at each other – and in English, even. It was wonderful. I sat in a collapsed heap at the front of class and every now and again, when I heard an egregiously badly pronounced word ("This is a stripped vegetable we eat in summer") I went over to that group and told them how it was pronounced ("This is a STRIPED vegetable"), but really, that was about all I had to do, aside from be deafened.

I know they liked the game because even though at the beginning of class they'd asked if we'd be finishing early (as they ask every week, no matter what), they were enjoying themselves so noisily they forgot the time. We didn't even hear the bell ring. I had to tell them time was up when I saw students outside waiting to get in for the next class.

I think that is the first time that has happened at that place since this 'team-teaching' thing started.

And that has led me to a new resolution. From now on I will be using more of my own materials and less of the textbook. I will base my materials on the easy bits of the textbook (so I can tell the loopy professor I am using it), and give the students something challenging but that they can actually do, and enjoy, like they did today, because that was a blast. Watching them using English and having fun and actually learning from each other was so unusual there that I felt like I was dreaming. I've been following the loopy professor's instructions too closely (although not all that closely, really), and using too difficult materials. What I used today WORKED.

The challenge for me, now, is to find ways to adapt the textbook. Today's game was not based on the text. I was being lazy and using something I already had available because I wanted to preserve my voice (and sanity), but I will have to be more focussed in future.

So does anybody have any really simple ideas for a competitive game based on the topic of 'home,' which is the theme of the next unit in the text? I have two weeks to come up with something. It should use simple English, be intensely cooperative and competitive (so some students in a group or pair are not tempted to have a wee nap), and fun (or, preferably, funny).

And I'm counting on you, because so far I'm coming up blank.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Why do very religious people so often have such filthy minds? You could dress a girl in a tent and they would still find it unbearably provocative. Doesn't it ever occur to them that the problem might be theirs, not the girls?

(You can see the full range of Malaysian school uniforms here, and judge for yourself.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Not a bad day, really

Yesterday I was feeling inexplicably tired. It's not inexplicable, really, given that on Thursday nights I usually get less than six hours sleep, but I mean that I was tireder than usual. In my first class I stood up too quickly at one point and saw stars. These were rather decorative, but not a good sign, and I decided it was a good thing I had decided to slack off and use my quiz game today instead of using the textbook to 'teach' the students. Those three cups of coffee I had at breakfast had made me feel very awake, but apparently my blood pressure hadn't got the message yet.

I am proud of my quiz game, which I have written about before. It started as a simple definition exercise in a textbook, which gave me the idea for a game, which has evolved into something that just keeps growing and getting better. I have never had it fail on me. When I use it even the worst students sit up and use English for the entire hour I usually give them to play the game. Students who you usually have to bribe or threaten to get them to open their mouths (or wake up) are suddenly alert and spouting badly accented English loudly and joyfully, and the classroom becomes a fun place to be. It is MAGIC. The students don't even realize they are studying. They are, though. I hear them later using phrases and expressions they learned from the game far more often than I hear them using phrases and expressions they learn from a textbook. And thanks to this quiz, what looks like being a crappy day can quite often turn out quite well, as it did yesterday.

The quiz game keeps getting bigger, too. I started off with five pages of fourteen questions each, and now have twenty-three pages. These new questions are not written by me, and in fact I do not use the original five pages much at all, now. The new questions come from the students. Every time I use this game I give them homework. "Write ten new quiz questions," I say, and I think it is the only homework they really get into, even though thinking up quiz questions is difficult. But that is why I give them ten. If I asked for five I would get the same few questions all the time. This is an animal with a long nose is one I always get, and You use this when it rains. And there are only so many elephants and umbrellas one quiz game can use. By insisting on ten I can usually get at least one or two good ones from each student, and sometimes more.

And then I can make a new quiz. I then try this out on the same students later in the semester, or later in the year (depending on how long I have them for), and they love it. I type up the good questions from all the classes I gave this homework to, correcting the English and introducing a few expressions I want them to get some practice with, and mix them all up. When they play it the second time, now and again they come across one of their own questions. This delights them and makes them feel smug and clever. They love the idea that I will give their questions to new students the next year.

The quiz works very simply. Each student in a group of four or five gets a different list of fourteen questions (or definitions), with the answers, and they take turns to ask a question. The student who answers the question correctly first gets a point. If nobody can get it, the questioner has to give more hints, in English. Once they grasp the rules (which are simple, so it doesn't take long), the game keeps them totally occupied for an hour and all I have to do is slump in my chair and be entertained. They teach each other. Most of the teaching has to do with the English rather than the questions themselves, which are easy. The person who has the answer can generally figure out what the question means, and teaches the others.

They also tease each other, get intensely competitive, shout and laugh a lot, and devise more complicated point-scoring rules of their own.

At the end of my favourite class today, when I was explaining the homework, someone complained that ten questions was too many and it would be hard. I explained why I wanted ten, and he nodded. I then started to collect and collate the quiz papers (which I was reusing in each class) and while I was doing this Osama stood up.

"It's not hard!" he shouted to the student who had complained. (Osama always shouts, and had enjoyed the game enormously and loudly.) "It's easy!"

He then started to make up quiz questions on the spot, acting like a game show host and totally taking over the class. I was happy with this as we only had a few minutes to go anyway and earlier I'd felt a little dizzy from the noise and excitement. Also, it was nice to have someone else in charge for a change.

And he was amazing. I can't think up quiz question that quickly in English let alone in another language, but he was popping them out as if he had them written in front of him. Most of them were funny, and some were referring to various other students in the class. ("This is a person who always comes five minutes late to class and is not very clever!" (The answer was one of his friends.) But the one that stuck in my mind was:

"These people were born to love you!"

That rang a bell, and I stopped sorting papers for a moment to think about it. Then I got it, just as another student also got it and shouted the answer. I started laughing.

I think the reason I liked that one was that most of their quiz questions with pop culture references go straight over my head, because they are about Japanese pop culture and I never watch TV. But this one I actually got. I was amazed that any of the students did, but when I looked it up just now discovered why.

Then, when I got home, I was reading StyleyGeek and this post sent me to the link I used in my last post, where I also found this:

song chart memes
more graph humor and song chart memes

Is it some kind of record, to get a laugh out of Queen twice in one day?

(This morning I woke up with a cold, which explains why I was feeling so bad yesterday.)

Friday, May 23, 2008


This graph is for Paula

song chart memes
more graph humor and song chart memes

(via StyleyGeek)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stormy life

Last week I bumped into one of my students from last year. I remember him particularly for something he wrote on a test. He wrote it in a writing section for extra points. This part was not graded unless I was tossing up whether to upgrade students from a C to a B, or a B to an A, and couldn't decide whether or not to give them the two or three points they needed. Then I would look at this bit, and if they had done a good job it could make a difference.

I had instructed them to write about their daily life.

These were often fun to read, and I was particularly looking forward to reading this student's 'daily life' answer. He was a very sweet and very nice-looking guy who always sat surrounded by a bunch of his friends, who were all girls. I THINK one of them was his girlfriend. He always looked particularly happy, and they were all very good students. The girls helped him with his study, teased him a lot, and whispered and giggled amongst themselves. He sat there like the cat who got the cream, soaking up the attention. The girls looked happy, too. He was a very relaxing sort of person, and funny.

But for his answer to the bonus question he had written only one sentence. It was not very enlightening, although it did cause me to choke on my coffee. The sentence was:

I lead a stormy life.

It could have been true, I suppose, but if so, he had the most well-disguised stormy life I have ever seen. And when I saw him last week he was still looking relaxed and happy, and still surrounded by girls.

Monday, May 19, 2008

One-legged motherhood

Crowd control

In my second-largest class (34 students) the noise level can be almost frightening at times. This is one of the classes coordinated by the boss who thinks I'm funny, but it is not the large class I complained about. I do not want to complain about this class. It is too big, but it is fun, because the students are higher level and willing to cooperate.

One of the things that makes this class fun is the class clown. This is a student called 'Osama' (not his real name, but he is a bit of a terrorist and the other students call him Osama). He is like no class clown I have ever had before. I wrote about him briefly after the first class, and he has lived up to my somewhat anxious expectations. I tried moving students around so he was with people he did not know, but that didn't work. You put him in a group of serious, solemn types, and within five minutes they are weeping with laughter and apologizing to me for disrupting the class.

The only option left was to co-opt him. I was afraid this would be difficult, as he is a bit of a loose cannon, but it turned out not to be. Osama likes English, and is pretty good at it. He is also quite respectful when he is not being funny. (Not often, I must admit, but at least he tries.) He is now being funny in English, with the odd Japanese pun thrown in. It is hard not to react to those. Puns are about the only thing I can do well in Japanese – in fact I have a hard time avoiding making them – and I do appreciate a good groaner.

The biggest problem with this class, now, is that when the noise level is high I cannot get their attention. My voice is not loud enough. The room is a bit echoey, and most of the students are guys, and sometimes, when I need to draw their attention to something I have a hard time being heard above the roar. This is not because they are misbehaving – most of the time they are using English, as instructed – but simply because they cannot hear me, and are paying attention to their partners or groups.

On Friday I found a way around this problem. Osama has the loudest voice in the class. I discovered that all I need to do to get the students' attention is to get his attention first, and the problem is solved. This happened by accident the first time. I wanted to tell the class something (about a mistake they were all making) but they did not realize I was trying to speak. I was standing at the podium, staring at the class and wondering whether I could be bothered doing my screeching-into-cupped hands thing, when Osama looked up. I shrugged helplessly. He looked around, then stood up and took a deep breath.

"SHUT UP!!!" he bellowed.

He was extraordinarily loud.

The class did a collective, shocked jump and suddenly fell silent. Thirty-three faces turned to me, waiting to see what I would do to punish the naughty student who had yelled so rudely. A couple of students giggled nervously.

I smiled.

"Thank you, Osama," I said. (I was able to use a normal voice!) "Thank you, everybody, and sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to give you some extra instructions, and my voice isn't loud enough."

I explained what they were doing wrong, and wrote the problem sentences on the board, along with a few examples. Everybody nodded seriously.

"That's all. Carry on!" I said, cheerfully, and they did. Within a few seconds I was being deafened again, this time by correct English.

He did this for me one more time during the class, without my having to ask. It was fabulous. On Friday afternoons I do not have much voice left and sometimes it's easy to let things slide because it's too much trouble to get the attention of the class. It is wonderful that I don't have to anymore.

I have a crowd control officer.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What would a real teacher do?

The bird in my last post reminds me of an experience I had when I first started teaching. I hadn't been in Japan very long, and had no experience of teaching language before coming here. I didn't know what I was doing, and was amazed that anyone would give me a job. They seemed to think (and still do) that anyone who speaks a language can teach it. This worried me (and still does), so I read as much as I could find about how to teach, and talked to other teachers, and tried not to rip off the students too much. But I still felt like a fraud, and frequently the thought would pop into my head, What would a real teacher do right now?

This was one of those occasions. (I think I may have written about it before, but perhaps on my old blog. I can't find it now, but if you have have a moment of déjà vu reading this, that's why.)

I was teaching at a conversation school, and one of my classes was a one-to-one lesson with a university student. He was very, very shy. In fact he was so shy I used to wonder why he was there at all, because he could hardly speak even to the secretaries, in Japanese. In class he barely raised his head from the textbook, and getting him to speak above a whisper was almost impossible at first. I realized that he would make no progress if he didn't trust me, so was as kind as I knew how, and gently tried to coax him out of his shell. It was about a month before I even saw his face, he kept his head down so low.

A few months into our lessons some progress was being made. Occasionally he would volunteer a comment that wasn't something he was reading from the textbook. Now and again his voice rose above a whisper, and sometimes he even looked up from his book. We had reached the chapter in the textbook about pets.

"Do you have a pet?" I asked him. The question was in the textbook.

"Yes, I do," he replied.

I was encouraged. Maybe he would talk about his pet.

"What kind of pet do you have?" I asked.

"I have a bird," he said.

"What kind of bird?" I asked, and he reached for his dictionary.

As he started leafing through the dictionary, I continued to question him.

"Is it a canary?"


"A budgie?"


"A parrot?"


"Is it a small bird?"


"What colour is it?"


"Does it sing?"


Then he found the word in the dictionary, and looked up. He even smiled. I glowed with pride. What a good job I was doing! The shy kid was actually smiling!

And then he came out with his first ever entirely independent English sentence. It was a good sentence, too. It was grammatically and semantically perfect.

"I have a white tit, and it sings!" he said.

I had one of those moments.

What would a real teacher do right now? I thought, as I stared at him, goggle-eyed with a suppressed snort.

Today I told an experienced teacher about this moment, and asked him what he'd have done. He was entertaining, but unhelpful.

"I would have said, 'And what's wrong with the other one? Does it only hum?'" he said.

I must confess that I hadn't thought of that response. The horrible temptation I'd had when it happened was to lift my shirt and declare, 'Well, I've got two, and they don't!' I'm glad I didn't, but it would have been a language lesson to remember. (It probably would have also traumatized the boy for life.)

What I ACTUALLY did was to stare at him for a moment, compose myself, and say, weakly,

"How nice. Let's move on to the next page."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Great tit

"Did you know you're a Great Tit?" I asked the little bird.

"How rude!" said the bird.

"It says so in Wikipedia," I said.

"I don't care," said the little bird. "That's no reason to be so insulting."

"Also, it says that you like to say Teacher, teacher!" I said. "Is that why you're hanging around here?"

But I was too late. The bird had flown.

Still funny

Tonight I came home and there was an email from the boss who thinks I'm funny. He'd emailed it to all the teachers, wanting to know, now that the semester is underway, how things were going and whether there were any problems or worries with our classes.

I wrote back and told him that aside from my last class on Friday being so large any problems I have are with crowd control rather than teaching, everything was going swimmingly. I told him about my other classes having such good attendance and punctuality, even the first period one, and told him about the tests I'm giving.

He wrote back,

"Oh, BadAunt, you never cease to make me laugh!"

I went back to my email and read it again, rather puzzled. As far as I could see, it had not miraculously become funny since I'd written it. Apparently he is still injecting the funny himself, and attributing it all to me.

How interesting – and how strange! I cannot understand where he got the idea that everything I say or write is a giant hoot. I had only met him once or twice before I started working in his department this year, and as far as I remember did nothing sidesplittingly hilarious then. Who on earth has he been talking to? I'm tempted to ask him.

But actually, I think I'll just leave it. It's fun to make people happy, even if you don't know quite how you're doing it. He seems to be enjoying himself enormously, and it's gratifying to think that it's all because of me.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Neighbour troubles

We have some new neighbours. We noticed them because they were so noisy. Every morning we could hear them gossiping and carrying on, from our window. They seem to comment on everything. We didn't mind, though, because they sounded cheerful. It is always good to have cheerful neighbours.

We thought they had children, but weren't sure.

Late yesterday afternoon, just after The Man had gone out, I heard voices outside the hallway window. The door from this room to the hallway was open, so I could hear them clearly. They were saying terrible things, swearing and shouting and yelling. They were using uncivilized language, dreadful cursing and carrying on, and it worried me.

But I ignored it at first. It will soon blow over, I thought. Don't get involved.

But it didn't stop. The shouting and cursing just got louder, and more insistent and angry. Finally, I went to the window to see what was going on.

Sure enough, our new neighbours were angry. In fact they were positively hysterical with rage. They were bouncing up and down along the power lines and shrieking curses at something below them.

"DON'T YOU DARE EAT OUR BABIES!" they were shouting.

At first I thought they were yelling at the woman next door. They were looking in that direction. Was she a baby-eater? I wondered. She had always seemed relatively harmless to me.

Our new neighbours didn't seem to think so, though.

I leaned out the window and looked down.

It was not the woman next door. It was her visitor, who I could not see clearly because the roof was in the way. Our new neighbours really objected to this visitor.

I wasn't entirely sure that this was an invited visitor, so I asked our new neighbours if they wanted me to help.

"Yes, please," they said. "We can't go home until he's gone. He'll see where our babies are, and eat them!"

I went outside.

"Are you invited?" I asked the cat. But the cat did not answer. As soon as I got close, he slunk away.

"He's going?" said one of the neighbours. "Yes! He's going!"


I went inside. Outside, all was quiet again.

The intruder had gone, and the neighbourhood was back to normal.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Last night The Man was speaking Chinese in his sleep. I was surprised, because he can't speak Chinese when he's awake. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but he was FLUENT.

It was amazing.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bits from a Friday

This morning on the train I sat opposite a middle-aged woman who was crocheting a doily. She was wearing a lot of flat white makeup, with crimson lips painted on so that she looked like an ukiyo-e painting, little cupid's bow and all. The black floppy hat and frumpy clothes didn't really fit the image, though. It was as if an old painting had come to life and somebody had put a funny hat on it. It seemed a odd thing for an ukiyo-e woman to be doing, too, crocheting a doily.

I spent most of my long commute trying not to stare, and she did me the same favour, although sometimes our eyes met accidentally and slid away. I knew what we were both thinking. What a funny hat to wear with that makeup, I was thinking. What funny-looking people gaijin are, she was thinking. And why does she keep looking at me?


In my potentially troublesome classes today in the new (to me) department I am having very few problems, so in the teachers' room at lunchtime I was smug. Teachers generally hate that department's classes.

"My first and second period classes over there are dreadful," said one teacher. "They can't even be bothered coming on time. Students are trickling in all class. And they're incredibly rude about it. There's a great interruption every time someone comes in, greeting their friends loudly and so on."

"Mine were all on time today," I said (smugly). "Those that came at all, I mean. In the second period I had eight absent, but in my first period class I had almost full attendance, and they were all on time."

Everybody stared at me.

"You lucky cow!" someone said, enviously. "You must have a high level class."

"No, they're middle-to-low," I said. "But I had been warned, by you guys, and started giving them tests in the second week."

Not that my students are getting very good grades in their tests (although some of them are getting better), but they are at least making sure they are in class on time for them. These tests are usually only three to five easy questions, which I tell them the week before, and I also tell them the answers. The catch is that the test is in the first ten minutes of class right after calling the roll, and anybody who isn't there for them can't get the points. And they're worth (culmulatively) thirty percent of their final grade. Basically they can get thirty percent of their grade for coming to class on time and paying attention in the last five minutes when I tell them what next week's test answers will be. It should be an easy thirty percent, but it's very rare for any student to get more than about twenty. I have never figured out why this is. Making the tests easier and easier doesn't seem to work.

"I had to yell at my lot today," said another teacher.

"Give tests instead," I advised. "When they come in late I act all disappointed. 'Oh, no!' I say. 'You missed the test, and it was a really easy one! What a shame!' And the student says, 'Test?' and gets all panicky, because they'd completely forgotten. It's brilliant. I am fantastically sympathetic, and they think I am kind."

But actually, I think the students in my first period class are enjoying themselves now that they've finally resigned themselves to getting up in time for class. Today I taught them how to um and er. I heard some of them saying,

"And-o..." while they were having 'conversations' today, and stopped them.

"'And' does not have an 'o' in it, I told them. "If you want to stretch the word so you have time to think, stretch the 'a,' and you can add um or er to the end, too."

I demonstrated, staring at the ceiling thoughtfully.

"Aaaaaand ... um ... " I said. "Aaaaand ... er... "

They thought that was hilarious, and in their next conversations most of them used it. I heard Aaaand ... er... and Aaaaaand ... um ... all over the place. It was like being in a classroom full of deeply thoughtful people who just couldn't find the words to say what they wanted to say. Some of them didn't say much else, but I didn't worry about it. It is good when they try new things, especially if it sounds funny. You have to be prepared to sound funny when you're learning to speak a foreign language.

Making the classroom a safe place for students to sound funny is what my job is all about, when I'm not tricking them into coming to class on time.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


The hardenbergia loves our garden, and we should not have planted it next to the climbing rose. It has overwhelmed the rose, which I had thought was indestructible. This year we have had, so far, only one rose blooming. Usually we have dozens, causing people to stop as they're passing to admire them. This year the hardenbergia bloomed wonderfully but the rose has had a hard time getting through to the sunlight.

I always neglect the rose. It usually blooms anyway, all over the place, and beautifully. Not this year.

We trimmed the hardenbergia yesterday but I fear it is too late. We will have another couple of roses – I have seen the buds – but I don't think there will be any more this spring. Certainly not the great clusters we usually get.

Maybe next year.

(Our one rose is PERFECT, though. And it is high up enough that the woman who usually steals our flowers cannot reach it. Ha.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

While the cat's away

The Man has been away for a few days, and I have been having a social life. On Saturday I went to a barbeque party. And to a pub.

It is a little worrying when you meet a new person and the first words out of his mouth when he shakes your hand are,

"BadAunt, eh? I've heard all about you!"

It is especially worrying when the person shaking your hand is a big scary-looking bloke with a shaved head. That is what happened to me at the barbeque party. It was his barbeque party, but I hadn't actually been invited by him. I had been invited by someone else, who was invited.

But the barbeque party was open to all, he told me, and I decided not to worry about what he'd heard about me. Sometimes it's better not to ask. Instead, I relaxed and enjoyed myself. The weather was wonderful and there was a good turnout – lots of colleagues, and those who had children had brought them, too. In fact the big bloke is also a colleague, and even works on the same day as me, but he told me he is teaching sports students in the evening which was probably why I hadn't seen him before. ("I once spent a whole semester teaching a sumo wrestler how to write his name in English.")

Later in the afternoon a surprise guest appeared, a woman who used to work at the same place but left a little over a year ago. She was back in Japan for a visit, and it was wonderful to see her again. In fact it was so wonderful that as it grew dark and we were leaving I let her drag me into a taxi and take me off to a pub she used to frequent when she was living here.

I never go to pubs here, or at least not the English or Irish pubs that are so popular amongst expats. The last time I went to a pub was at least ten years ago. The main reason I don't go is the music. It is TOO LOUD. What is the point of going to a place to spend time with a friend and then not being able to have a conversation? My friend has a powerful voice. I was able to hear her, but only if she shouted very loudly in my ear, and she could not hear my answers. In any case, she circulated, greeting old friends and having snatches of conversation between songs, and I sat at the bar and nursed my one drink. I made it last. I did not want to end up both deaf and drunk.

The place was crowded, and I was lucky to have a barstool. That was courtesy of the big bloke, who was already there when we arrived and who seemed to think I was a fragile flower who needed taking care of. (Either that or I look elderly and frail. I'm not sure.) He pinched the stool from someone who was unwise enough to go to the toilet leaving it unguarded and wise enough not to complain when he came back and saw who had taken it.

I then spent the rest of the evening being flirted with. That was a bit surprising, and I have to admit that I'm not really sure that those guys really were flirting with me. I am out of practice. It is possible that they were actually asking me how many grandchildren I had. I couldn't hear what they were saying. They all had a lot to say, though, and didn't seem to mind that nobody could hear them. Do frequent pub-goers learn to lip-read? Is that the secret?

In any case, they seemed to be able to understand what I said, or at least bits of what I said (not much – I do enough shouting at work) although one of them apparently got the impression that I was a pill-popper. "Don't do it!" he shouted in a lull in the music. "Don't do pills!" He was waggling his finger at me. "You should stop! Those things will kill you!"

Then the next song started and my attempts to set him straight were reduced to meaningless gestures. He spent the rest of the evening shaking his head sadly at me and looking worried.

The big scary bloke (who turned out to be quite a gentleman) apparently decided I needed some protection, so nabbed another stool (there were a lot of weak bladders in that pub) and pulled it up beside me. We had a long conversation during which he did most of the talking while I nodded and smiled encouragingly. I don't know what it was about. I only heard bits between songs. Did he really say he used to be some kind of criminal? Maybe I made that bit up.

Eventually I decided my ears had been assaulted enough for one night and slipped away, hugging my friend goodbye and then escaping the grasp of a very short, sad-looking bloke who apparently thought I was going to be his new best friend and also wanted a cuddle. Walking back to the train station I was still feeling fantastically beautiful and popular when I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirrored pillar and was brought back to earth with a thud.

Two days later my ears are still ringing and I still don't have a clue what all that was about. It's a long time since I sat on a bar stool surrounded by men wanting to buy me drinks. In fact I'm not sure that it has ever happened before, and it was a bit confusing. Are there a lot of desperate gaijin men in Osaka? Or are they just particularly kind to older women? If only I could have heard what they were saying! But perhaps it is better for my ego that I couldn't.

I'm hoping to see my friend again before she leaves the country, but not if she wants to go to a pub again. It was interesting, but that was enough pubbing for me for at least the next ten years.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

General oddness

I had an odd sort of day today. The 'difficult' class of repeat students has apparently decided that I'm an acceptable teacher to have after all, and hung around for their full ninety minutes, the annoying little buggers. The first two weeks they were out the door before I'd finished telling them we could finish early if they wanted. Suddenly they're hanging around and wanting to talk, and I'm the one wanting to rush off because my next class is way across campus. Obviously they're having too much fun. Must remember to give them something tedious next week.

Then the student I wrote about earlier who is my only weirdo this semester revealed his true colours. Not in a way you can fault, exactly, but he made my last class, which I had thought would be easy, incredibly difficult. He is a model student. He does exactly what he is told. But he does it with an air of patronizing patience. He is a big lump of a guy (not fat, but big), who wears his trousers up around his nipples somewhere and has the social skills of a tub of lard. He seems to regard the other students as silly children, and it is hard to believe he is only nineteen himself. He is like a tired old man, bored with the silly infants he is being forced to associate with.

None of this would be a problem, except that any student I pair him with, or group I put him in, gets the life sucked out of it so fast it's like it has moved into the orbit of a black hole. As it is a small class (only twelve students!), this is affecting the entire class. I get them changing partners and groups often, to spread the pain, but all that means is that the black hole gets moved around the room like a vacuum cleaner, sucking the energy out of the whole place. I can see the other students trying hard, the sweeties, trying to include him in the general fun, but he discourages them and it is starting to show. They are becoming reluctant, and I don't blame them. That kid is a VAMPIRE.

I am tempted to tell him to sit in a corner and talk to himself next week. I won't, of course, but I don't know what I will do.

In the repeat students class I did the general knowledge quiz today, which is part of the reason they had so much fun. They were astonishingly bad at it, and LOVED it. My favourite little discussion came when I asked the question,

"Which country was Picasso from?"

The two guys who were trying to answer the question went into a huddle.

"All I can think of is Spain," said one to the other, half apologetically, and I almost fell off my chair. I restrained myself, however, and kept quiet.

"Don't be silly," said the other one. "Picasso was from Europe!"

"Oh, yeah. That's right. Sorry."

The world righted itself again. I don't know what I'd do if my students started showing signs of actually knowing anything. Half my activities would become boring, because I wouldn't be able to laugh at them any more.