Saturday, December 31, 2005


Today The Man and I are off to Okaasan's place for our traditional Japanese New Year, as usual. We will watch some appallingly bad singers on TV (Kohaku, the Red and White Song Contest) dressed up in amazingly over-the-top costumes, and then watch the countdown on NHK, where they gong! in the New Year with temple bells from all over Japan. At midnight I'll kiss Okaasan and she'll giggle, and The Man and I will head off to the local shrine. Tomorrow we will stuff ourselves with traditional New Year's food.

I love New Year here. Everything slows down. It used to slow down for three days - everything was closed until the fourth - but these days many shops are open already on the second. Still, the first is a lovely, peaceful day.

When I come back I will repost the pictures of the birds, with the winning captions. I know I said I'd do it on Wednesday, but Wednesday flew past without my noticing. I started my New Year slowdown a bit early.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Catching up

Is it really six days since I last wrote a blog entry? It must be time to kick start myself again with a stream-of-consciousness blog entry.

So what have I been doing for the last week? The short answer is, not much. The thing with my job is that I'm busy all the time when I'm working, and then classes finish and suddenly I'm not busy, and the days stretch out and I think I have plenty of time to catch up with everything, but then I do nothing. I just ... stop. It's such a relief not to have to get up early, and such a relief not to be facing yet another hoard of students demanding to know what they need to do to pass that I just bliss out and do nothing for a while. And then the 'while' gets longer and longer...

But I haven't been doing ABSOLUTELY nothing. On Xmas eve I went shopping and bought a new skirt and jacket. They were very cheap, which is why I bought them even though they are not made of natural material. I usually avoid artificial fabrics because of the static problem, but these were lovely and I thought I could deal with it. The first time I wore them I went downstairs and as I went I could feel the skirt starting to stick to my legs. When I walked out the front door all the rubbish in the air for 100 metres around instantly attached itself to the skirt. It was amazing. I added anti-static spray to the shopping list.

It occurs to me that wearing this skirt I don't need a vacuum cleaner. I could just walk around the house and the dust bunnies would come to me crying Mama! I don't want to try it, though. I'm afraid I might self-combust.

This reminds me that when I was in London I looked for some anti-static spray after that horrible airline blanket experience. I didn't want it to happen again flying back, so I went into a chemist and asked if they had anything that would work to take out static. They didn't know what I was talking about. I explained what had happened, and explained about the anti-static spray you can buy here, and they looked at me as if I was mental. They suggested that I try an electrical shop. When I went to an electrical shop they looked at me as if I was mental and suggested that I try a chemist. At that point I was reminded of the old joke about how to keep an idiot awake all night: you write USE OTHER SIDE on both sides of his pillow. I didn't tell the joke, though. I gave up. The way everybody looked at me when I tried to explain why I wanted the spray made me think that perhaps I was exaggerating. It can't have been that bad, surely? Maybe I was just being overly dramatic about the whole thing. And maybe it was a one-off thing anyway, and wouldn't happen again.

I was wrong, of course. It did happen again, and it was that bad. I guess Londoners don't have static problems. Certainly I seemed to be the only one on the plane who got attacked by their blanket.

The other thing I've been doing in the last few days is marking tests. I made a wee mistake this year, and gave tests that are a pain in the arse to mark. I thought I'd get them out of the way at the beginning of the holidays, but it didn't work out that way, because the first day I tried I only got one class done. It took three hours. At the end of that I didn't feel like doing more. I was tired of snarling at bits of paper. I've been doing one class a day for several days now, and have four to go.

I do not understand why everybody didn't get 100% on this test. I didn't only tell them what the questions would be, I told them the answers. How could they get so many wrong? I don't know what to DO with students who self-sabotage. Not all of them do, of course, and one guy did get 100%. The problem is that he wasn't one who needed to do well. The ones who needed to do well, and whom I reminded of the answers so they could actually pass the test and thus pass the course (even though they don't deserve to), didn't. They turned up and acted as though the test was a big surprise and it was all my fault.

I want to bang their heads together. Instead, I will fail them. This means that when classes start back (and almost instantly finish again) and I tell them their grades I have a whole lot of grovelling to look forward to. I hate it when they beg. Why don't they just offer me money?

On a brighter note (and because if I write any more about hopeless students I'll get snarly again) I wore my new outfit (liberally sprayed) on Xmas day when I went to a flea market with friends. That was lovely, but I'm happy that Xmas doesn't fall on a Sunday next year because the flea market was way too crowded. I tried to take photos, but it was hard. There were just too many people. But I took some, and here they are.

The Man told me that I should try to get an overview. This proved to be impossible. You cannot see the whole market from anywhere. There are several lanes of stalls, and once you enter a lane you are surrounded by stalls and people. But at the end of one lane the road rose a little and the crowds thinned, so I took a shot looking back. (Click for larger images.)

Who is old enough to remember this dog? (Spot the odd one out!) The same stall was selling old wind-up gramophones.

Beckoning cats are considered lucky, here. These are Kutani, so were probably quite expensive, although I didn't ask. They probably don't look like they're beckoning to you, but that's because you are not Japanese (except you. Yes, you. You know who I'm talking about) and do not beckon with your palm down. Japanese people beckon palm down, using a motion like... like ... (I'm waving my hand around here trying to figure out what it looks like) ... like the motion your hand makes when you scratch behind a cat's ears. Well, a bit like that, anyway. If I had a cat I would experiment further, but unfortunately there is no cat in my life right now.

This last picture is of the beginning of a lane of food stalls. On the right those bags are full of candy floss (that's cotton candy to you Americans). The bags are decorated with cartoon characters.

So, that has been my life for the last few days. Today I marked another class's tests and got grumpy. After that I needed to relax so I had another go at this.

(And if you clicked on that link, you'll know what I've been doing when I haven't been shopping or marking tests or going to flea markets. I am embarrassingly addicted to this game.)

Friday, December 23, 2005

Snow, dinner, boogers

I was woken by the wind making cartoon noises around the house at 4.30 this morning. (Yesterday morning, actually.) Hoooo! Wheeee! Fifteen minutes later I gave up and got up. Left to stars in a clear sky, arrived at work to total cloud cover and snow. I got home well after ten this evening, after a very hard day at work due to the fact that it is the last classes of the year, and to sudden Weather (note the capital W), then a celebratory end-of-working-year Indian feast and drinks with colleagues, and then a trip home delayed by the aforementioned Weather. It has been one of those days, but dinner was fun. Actually, the snow was too, being rare enough here to be a novelty. I love snow, probably because I've never had to deal with it enough to get sick of it.

I'm just going to write about dinner, though.

(The following has been infected with parentheses. Sorry. I'd fix it but I'm too tired.)


We finish work and walk over to the gate together. M takes off for the admin building.

"Just going to sign in, forgot earlier, back in a minute," he says. Thirty minutes later we're still waiting in the freezing cold by the gate:

"Do you think he walked straight past us and didn't notice?" I ask. "How could he possibly be taking this long?"

"Oh, you know M. He probably bumped into fifteen students, two janitors, three teachers, and the secretaries, and had to talk AT LENGTH to them ALL and pick up some more misinformation."

The restaurant is lovely. There are four guys and me and three little daughters picked up on the way. Later, The Man arrives. THE MAN ARRIVES! I'd invited him but didn't think he'd come, he's such a hermit. Hardly any of my colleagues have ever met him. They are charmed, of course. So is he, I think. He expected them to be young and boring. They're not. They're middle-aged and hilarious. The Man does not stay long, however. He is working on a job in the area and just popped in for chai.

All of these guys are teachers, and fathers of young children, which means they are superb multitaskers. M manages to simultaneously tell us a story, eat curry, drink beer, and explain to three fascinated small girls (one his own daughter) the correct way to insert straws up their nostrils. The story he tells us is scandalous (while being told in a way that does not interest small girls) and involves a teacher who has now left and can be slandered freely. (Not that M baulks at slandering people in the same room, but his stories become more elaborate when the victim is not there to contradict him.) As an aside he tells us that this teacher is now living in an obscure place and doing such an obscure job that I cannot mention it here because he is probably the only person in the whole wide world with this job and could Google himself and discover that I am exposing his naughty secrets. He gets lovely government grants from two governments, who both think of him as an asset, an impression he has carefully cultivated by exaggerating his talents wildly. Nobody can challenge him because he is probably the only person in the world with even a smidgen of these talents (and quite possibly even he doesn't really have them, but only his friends dare to doubt him out loud).

That was an aside, however. The story (between straw poking demonstrations) involved a shagging trip to the Philippines (a description which turned out to be another gross exaggeration, it turned out later, but certainly got us listening), a woman, an imaginary vampire bat, a real set of false teeth, an overactive imagination, and an orgasm. I will not elaborate further in case I get sued, but if you put those ingredients together I'm sure you can come up with something close enough to the story we heard tonight. In fact it will probably be closer to what actually happened than the story we heard, which was undoubtedly highly embroidered and has grown with each telling. (To great effect, I might add. We were riveted. I ended up with a burning sensation in my sinuses from snorting suddenly while ingesting curry, not a recommended activity.)

I turn and whisper to the colleague on my other side,

"Do you think he is making it all up? I can't get my head around this. I mean, really, M, on a SHAGGING TRIP? What does he do, talk to women until they fall over laughing and then take advantage of them in their weakened condition?"

"It can't be true, surely," he says, wiping his eyes. Then he looks interested. "Do you think that would work?"

Later, M's wife arrives and turns out to be a lovely, relaxed person, very, very tolerant of his occasional wild statements, probably because he is so good at entertaining children and thus leaving her free to eat and to be a person instead of a mother all the time. She doesn't even seem to mind when the little girls decide it might be a good idea to exchange boogers via the straw. These children will be Mac users one day. They think different. I mean, all children pick their noses (and so do all adults, only we don't admit it), but how many children do you know who put boogers back into their noses?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Caption contest

Several readers (well, one anyway) have expressed concern that I seem to understand what birds are saying. All I can respond to this is, Well, pffft! Can't you? They may not say stuff out loud, but it's all in the body language.

To demonstrate this, I am holding a caption contest. In these pictures it is perfectly obvious that something is going on. Can't you hear what the birds are saying? Of course you can. And you can tell me, by email or in comments.

The prize (if you can call it that) for the winning caption(s) is that the pictures will be republished along with the winning captions. You may use all or some of the pictures.

Judging will take place a week from now, which means, er, Wednesday next week. (My time, which probably means Tuesday for some of you.)

Go on, then. Prove that I'm not the only one who can read bird brains.


Picture 2:

Picture 3:

Picture 4:

Picture 5:

Picture 6:

Picture 7:

Picture 8:

So what does this make me?


Monday, December 19, 2005

Bad hair day

"I am not feeling very good today," said the bird. "I think I'll just stand here in the dead weeds, and sulk."

A gull was sitting on a rock nearby. It called out.

"Hey, bird!" it shouted. "I know what your problem is! You're standing the wrong way! It happens to me, too. Look! If I stand this way - "

" - See? But if I stand THIS way - "

"No problem! You should try it!"

"Could that be it?" wondered the bird. "Am I just looking in the wrong direction? Is my outlook all wrong?"

The bird turned around, and regarded its reflection in the water. Nothing had changed.

"PISS OFF!" it shouted to the gull. "DON'T YOU KNOW A BAD HAIR DAY WHEN YOU SEE ONE?"

"Oh, a bad hair day," said the gull. "Can't do anything about that."

"You should have said so in the first place."

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Today I distinguished myself by being two hours and fifty minutes late for a three hour meeting. This was not intentional. I left in time to get there one hour late (which WAS intentional), then got hungry on the way so stopped to have something to eat, and then got interested in the book I was reading and didn't notice the time, and then missed a connection, and then... well, let's just say that the meeting didn't seem important enough for me to actually hurry, and by not hurrying I managed to get there in time to catch the last ten minutes.

I opened the meeting room door to the sound of uproar. Some sort of argument, I mean discussion - yes, that's it, DISCUSSION - was happening, and everybody was looking the other way, so I whipped off my coat and mentally rehearsed the words I had prepared for anybody who asked:

"I just went to the toilet. Did I miss anything?"

Nobody asked, however. I sat down for a moment at a table with a bunch of other people (one colleague knew I'd be late, because I told her yesterday so she had expected it and didn't say anything) and then almost immediately stood up again and wandered casually over to the table that had the information handouts and took one of everything. I stopped to chat with a few people along the way, at different tables.

All the information we need is in the handouts. We don't NEED the meeting. They could send it all via email. The boss likes to lecture us, however. Also, he likes us to attend his meetings. It makes him think we are good, dedicated teachers, and it makes him feel important.

Eventually the discussion ended (when the boss took the mike and SHOUTED AT EVERYBODY TO SHUT UP OR HE WOULD PLAY HIS MOUTH ORGAN and everybody screamed NO! NO! and he played his mouth organ anyway and deafened us with feedback). He said the meeting only had ten minutes to run, we had to finish up soon, and did anybody have any questions. Somebody did. While she was asking her question I used half my brain to listen and the other half to quickly peruse the mountain of paper I'd just picked up. Then I asked an intelligent question, and it was answered, and my mission was accomplished. I had established that I was at the meeting. I was there. I asked an intelligent question. Brownie points to me. HA.

As we were packing up to leave the meeting room one of the teachers stopped me and pulled me aside.

"I'm impressed. I've been watching you, and learning."

"What?" I asked innocently.

"Your timing!" he said. " IMPECCABLE. Now I know how I'm going to do this meeting NEXT year."

I just hope not TOO many people noticed. I don't think the boss would be too happy to lecture an empty room for two hours and fifty minutes and then have seventy-odd teachers suddenly turn up ten minutes before the end.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


I am not a morning person, as I suspect regular readers have already guessed. Sunrise is something that, if my life is not regulated by work, I am more likely to see at the end of a day than the beginning. If I am forced by circumstances to rise with the lark, it takes a while for me to get going. I tell people I have low blood pressure, but it could just be laziness.

Last night I set the alarm for 5 am, as I do on Thursdays and Fridays, and this morning I dreamed that the alarm went off. In my dream I thought this was funny. Ha ha! I laughed. I'm dreaming that the alarm went off! What silly, paranoid tricks my brain plays on me!

Five minutes later I decided that JUST IN CASE I would check what time it was. It's probably only 4 o'clock, I told myself. I was looking forward to seeing the clock. It's SO nice to discover that I still have another hour.

I looked at the clock. It was hard to see in the dark, but it seemed to be saying 5.55 am. Not possible, I thought. My clock is broken!

I called to The Man, who was working on the computer to a deadline (today!) and was still up.

"What's the time?" I asked.

"OH SHIT! SIX O'CLOCK! SORRY!" came the voice from the other room.

I catapulted myself out of bed.


But I was brilliant. You would have been proud of me. I flung a bra around me and it miraculously hooked up at the back. I threw on some things I couldn't quite identify because my eyes weren't working yet in the sudden glare of the light but they were at the top of the pile (have I mentioned I'm messy?) so I assumed I'd worn them yesterday, and therefore would do. I hurled myself downstairs without touching the floor and made myself a cup of tea with lots of sugar so I wouldn't faint at the train station when I stopped moving, and floated swiftly back upstairs without spilling a drop. I sat and thought for two minutes, furiously sipping hot tea. I threw the stuff I'd brought home from work yesterday OUT of my bag, and threw a couple of other things IN. I waved a hairbrush at my hair and told it to consider itself brushed. Then I went out to the basin and tossed my contact lenses in the general direction of my eyes and they went right in. I stabbed myself in the mouth with a toothbrush. I picked up moisturiser and tossed it into my bag to do later. I hurtled downstairs with my bags, and then hurtled right back up again to get my coat. Then I got my boots on the correct feet and was out the door, tossing my bags AND the newspaper (I even remembered the newspaper!) into the baskets of my bicycle. I raced out the gate, hit the road, and suddenly slowed down, aware that I was in no condition to avoid hitting things that jumped out at me suddenly, like power poles or houses. Rode very slowly and carefully to the station, parked the bike, threw myself up the stairs, located my train pass with no problem, threw myself down the stairs, and found myself on the platform with three minutes to spare. THREE WHOLE MINUTES. Are you impressed? I was.

It was still dark, and I could see stars. Then my head started to swim as well, and I remembered that we don't see THAT many stars here, and none at the train station, and anyway stars don't normally swim around like that. I decided it might be a good idea to pace.

On the train everyone was bundled up and shivery, but I was remarkably warm. My eyes felt funny, though. It felt like if I shook my head too quickly my eyeballs might pop out and land on the floor. That was all right though. I didn't need to shake my head.

For the first leg of the commute absolutely nothing happened inside my head.

At Osaka I went down the stairs and then up again to wait on another platform for my next train, which was arriving in four minutes. I stood behind the very short woman who is always there at that time. She always peers down the tracks as if she doesn't really believe the train will come this time, Is it here yet, my god I can't see it I don't think it's coming this morning! As I was standing there a small but devastating thought finally decided it was safe to enter my head.

Under my coat, it is quite possible that there is no skirt.

This thought was so perfectly horrible and so perfectly plausible that I didn't want to check, in case it turned out to be also perfectly accurate. I thought and thought and thought, but had absolutely no memory of putting on a skirt. Just as the train pulled into the station I leaned down and pulled my coat open a little and checked. To my vast relief there WAS a skirt down there. I HAD EVEN REMEMBERED TO PUT ON A SKIRT.

Oh, yes, I was amazing this morning. You should have seen me go. I just hope that I don't have to be amazing again anytime soon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

What is education?

The heavy question that is the title of this post is one I think about often, especially at this end of semester. What is education supposed to be? ('Education' as it has come to mean - schools and universities - I mean, not the education we get from everyday life and/or give ourselves.) What is it for? Everybody assumes we need it, but do we really? Does it really take ten or more institutionalised years to equip a person for the modern world? People who really want to learn will learn anyway, and those that don't won't. Right? And most people just want to watch TV, and most will never use what they learned at school.

Sometimes I suspect that the real purpose of education is that the world needs holding pens for inconveniently immature people.

This thought comes to you incomplete because I am too tired to complete it, and was triggered by the approach of grading season in teacher-land and the appalling realization of just how much my students have learned in my classes this semester. I've been looking at their homework and listening to their 'English conversations' and thinking,

So what was that all about then, eh? What was it all FOR?

Poo. Bah. Humbug. I hereby award myself a day off.

(Which is now coming to an end, and I STILL haven't finished marking the homework.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Electric teacher

It's that time of year again, when I am always embarrassing myself by shrieking and and leaping in the air and dropping things.

It is DRY, and I have become electric.

I know it seems that I spend half of the year complaining about how humid it is and the other half complaining about how dry it is, but there is a reason for this. It IS. Dry, I mean. And humid. If you calculated the average humidity for the year here it would probably be ideal. Unfortunately it is very rarely average, and right now it is fantastically dry.

I demonstrated this today in one of my classes. I walked in, carefully using my little deelectrifier thingy on the metal door so I wouldn't get zapped.

"What's that?" asked my students, and I explained. They learned a new word: static electricity, which I wrote on the board. I demonstrated how my little gadget lit up when I touched it to the door. They were impressed, and wanted to try it. When they did, nothing happened. Apparently I am the only one who comes to the classroom fully charged.

I went over to the air conditioner control box to turn it down a little. It was cold out, but stifling in the room. I reached out my finger to hit the button and a spark jumped the gap. I leaped and shrieked. The students gasped.

"What happened?" they asked.

"Static electricity," I said, succinctly, indicating where I'd written it on the board.

"Doesn't it work?" they asked, pointing at the gadget, which was in my other hand.

"Yes. It works," I snapped. "I just didn't use it."

I took two steps to the video cabinet and unlocked the door. As I bent down to pick up the remote control I was zapped by the cabinet itself, which is made of metal. I did the leap and shriek thing again, and turned to face the students. They were staring, fascinated.

"But I touched the cabinet when I opened the door, and nothing happened!" I wailed indignantly. "Why did it only zap me when I touched the shelf? And I just grounded myself on the control for the air conditioner! And it was only TWO STEPS! How could I work up another charge that quickly?"

"Eh?" they said. I had gone beyond their comprehension. Babbling isn't in the textbook.

"Oh, never mind," I said. "Does this happen to your other teachers?"

"No," they said. You could see them thinking, It's a gaijin thing. Gaijin are weird.

I put the video in. The sun was streaming in through the windows so I paused the video and closed the blinds. Then the fluorescent lights were reflecting in the TV monitor, so I decided to turn them off. I walked over to the light switch. As I hit the switch I did the shriek and leap thing again.

I turned and stared at the students. They weren't laughing so I didn't kill them. In fact they seemed to think the whole thing was terrifically serious, and quite frightening.

"Why don't you use it?" asked one, frowning and pointing, and I looked down at the gadget in my other hand. "Because I am EXTREMELY STUPID," I didn't say.

"I keep forgetting," I said. "Usually it's just the door that gets me. And the chalkboard ledge. Aren't the light switches plastic?"

"No," she said, and I corrected her to, "Yes." (Negative questions always get them.) She added, "Your face is red." They all nodded, solemnly amazed. I knew my face was red. I could feel it. I was lit up like a stop sign.

I decided I didn't feel like dredging any more language teaching out of this, and started the video. I might be the only electric teacher they have, but enough is enough. It is possible to be too entertaining.

Besides, it was making me grumpy.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Book frenzy

Today I went to the big annual book bargain sale, and spent more than I want to think about. However, I haven't been spending money on books recently, so I'm telling myself that I'm doing all my spending in one big lump rather than spread out over time, and I'm getting the books cheaper than the usual price.

I can't tell you most of what I bought, because I can't remember. They will be delivered on Monday.

I took my camera, thinking that I could show you some pictures of Osaka to contrast with the lovely birds I took pictures of the other day, but forgot I had it with me as I was negotiating the crowds. Osaka was madly busy.

At the book sale I went into a trance and found myself examining books briefly, having fascinating sentences jump off the page at me, and dropping them in my basket so fast that I filled it in about ten minutes. ALL the books seemed to be good. I took my basket through to the cashier's desk and asked them to hold them for me while I went back for more.

Within another ten or fifteen minutes I had filled up another basket. I came up for air when books started spilling out when I tried to drop more in, at which point common sense kicked in and I decided it was time to stop. The problem was that staff were filling in the gaps on the tables as I wandered around, so I could do the same aisle multiple times and every time there'd be something new. It seemed like they were keeping all the best books in reserve, which made it hard to leave. I briefly considered a third basket, but it was stifling in there with the crowds and the small space, and I needed something to drink, and to cool off.

As I was leaving I saw a colleague approaching the entrance with his very small daughter.

"HELLO BADAUNT!" he bellowed, giving several people whiplash as they turned to see what the commotion was about.

"Hello," I said, meekly, trying to make myself inconspicuous. I felt like someone who has been asleep for a while and is suddenly confronted with a staring crowd. He introduced me to his daughter.

"Hello," I said again, and she stared.

"Anybody else in there?" he asked.

"No," I said, as people milled around us. I thought about it for a moment. "On the other hand, it's quite possible that they're ALL here," I added. "I've been preoccupied. This is my second basket."

"Golly!" he said, peering into the basket. "It must be a good one this time. So what did you get?"

"Um..." I said. "I'm not sure." I couldn't remember a single book I'd chosen.

He picked one at random from my overflowing basket, and three more slid to the floor. They weren't very well balanced.

"Quantum physics, eh?" he said, perusing the back cover. "Ooh! This looks interesting."

"It's about some theory about the speed of light being variable," I said, recalling the blurb.

"Can I borrow it when you've finished?" he asked, and I remembered that in one of his previous lives he'd been a science teacher. If the book looked interesting to him it was probably way beyond me. I wondered whether I should take it back. But what if it WAS interesting for me? My brain stuttered with indecision.

I turned to his daughter, quickly, before he picked up another book and introduced more doubts about what I'd chosen.

"Do you like Harry Potter?" I asked her.

She stuck a finger up her nose and nodded tentatively, eyes like saucers.

"Check out the pile to the right as you go in," I told her. "There's lots."

"Oh dear," said her father, distracted. "I don't like Harry Potter much." He frowned at her. "Do you REALLY think you'd read them?" he asked.

She shook her head solemnly, and I wondered if she could read at all. She was probably a bit small for Harry Potter anyway.

"Oh, good," he said.

"Sorry," I said to the wee girl. "But there are lots of other good books. Maybe you'll find one about quantum physics."

She nodded and took her finger out of her nose.

Her father was rummaging through my basket again.

"Oh, look!" he said. "Ian Buruma! They DO have a good bunch this time. I've never seen his books at the sale before."

"They have EVERYTHING," I assured him. "And they keep coming around and adding more. It's terrible."

"Oh, and The Kite Runner!" said my colleague, still rummaging. "I read about that in the Guardian."

"So did I," I said. "That's why I got it."

"And what's this? The history of protein...? Hmm... And here's one about bacteria! And ooh! The South Seas Expedition!"

He started to read. I rolled my eyes at his daughter, and little smile appeared on her face for the first time.

"Do you think he's going to read them all RIGHT NOW?" I asked her.

She tugged at his sleeve, and he started and put the books back into the basket.

"Let's go!" he said. "What are we waiting for?"

And off they went.

I was just glad he hadn't seen my first basket, from when I'd gone through the trashy novel section at high speed and amassed a fine collection of train reading. The second basket was MUCH better for my reputation.

But I'm a bit worried now that my book-grabbing frenzy in the science section will backfire and he'll expect me to engage me in intelligent discussions about quantum physics, protein, bacteria, and the South Seas expedition. He's one of the dinner crowd on Thursdays, and I don't feel very brainy on Thursdays at the end of the day.

Perhaps I should have just shown him the brain candy in the first basket.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Head screwed on wrong

When I have these early commutes, getting up at five, I'm not really very alert. I have to change trains at Osaka, and if I am not paying careful attention when I get on the train and sit down (i.e. frequently), then after the train doors close and the train pulls out of the station it GOES THE WRONG WAY, PANIC! PANIC! WHY IS IT GOING THE WRONG WAY? I'VE TAKEN THE WRONG TRAIN!

I haven't, of course, but it gives me a nasty few minutes before we get to the next station.

Some people have an internal compass, and always know which direction they are going. I have a faulty internal compass. Getting onto the train and sitting down is enough to turn me around completely. My faulty internal compass tells me with total conviction that I'm going the wrong way.

How do you repair a faulty internal compass?

(It happened again this morning.)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Other interpretations

Last week my students wanted to talk about movies. It was the topic in the textbook, but they didn't seem to know how to start. I wanted them to know how to answer the question, "What's the movie about?" without going on and on with a lot of detail and omitting the most important main facts, which is what they seem to do (and switch to Japanese to do it, because it's all so difficult to explain). After that they could answer other questions about the characters and actors and more details about the story, but I wanted them first to be able to say what kind of movie they were talking about, and a very brief plot summary, within their limits of English.

Apparently I managed to teach this rather well, at least to some of the students. I got them to write about movies today to see if they remembered how, and some of the results were hilariously brief. This is my favourite:

Star Wars series is science fiction. It is big scale family fight.

He was right, of course. I just hadn't quite thought of it like that.


Robert writes about a sticker he saw on a van, and his reaction to it. I read the blog entry with puzzlement. I was also bemused by the sticker, but for entirely different reasons.

How funny! I thought. Show them to whom, and why? And, What if I don't HAVE any dogs?

I had to read it twice before I got it. I had a similar problem with the alarmed buildings in London. They made me laugh, too.

I think I've been here too long.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bird story

So there was this bird, see, and it was walking along minding its own business in the river.

And as it was walking along it spotted another bird.

"Wow!" it said. "Look at that bird! It's gorgeous! Almost as beautiful as me!"

"Hey, you," it said. "Give me a kiss."

Another bird was watching this.

"What nonsense!" it huffed. "Young people nowadays, always admiring themselves. Tsk tsk! I'm FAR too mature to do anything like that."

"Besides, my feet would get cold."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Kissing the Communist

One of my classes is of foreign students. It is a small class, with one Vietnamese and five Chinese students. All are women, and in their twenties and thirties. These are real beginner students (two of them hadn't studied English at all before my class, and one had to learn the alphabet) but they have made huge progress. This is because they want to. They have less English than my usual students do, but they use it more.

Yesterday they wanted to talk about Christmas. They want to learn some Christmas carols. The Vietnamese student said that she has a CD of Christmas carols, and will bring it to class next week. It has Silent Night on it, she said. She loves Silent Night.

One of the Chinese students commented that Christmas was a Christian holiday, wasn't it? I said it was, and she wanted to know if I was a Christian. The Vietnamese student said that she was. She is a Catholic. Everybody learned the word religion.

The Chinese student who had asked the question said that she had no religion. The other Chinese students agreed, but then one decided that she did after all. She looked it up.

"I'm a Communist!" she said.

The others laughed at her.

"That's not a religion!" they said, and I thought, Well...

"Also," said the first student (the best English speaker), "I think it's not very good." She shook her head sadly, tut-tutting and looking wise.

The Communist put on a look of exaggerated dignity, and hit her. Everybody laughed.

After that, every time the Communist said anything or looked at anybody, everybody cringed exaggeratedly and whimpered, "Don't hit me!" (In English, of course. They asked me how, first.) The others told me that I have to give her an A, or she might hit me, too. I said I was frightened (one of last week's words) and yes yes yes I would give her an A, and when the Communist looked daggers at me I cowered. Then the others decided that the best way to placate a Communist was to kiss her, so they started kissing her, mwah! mwah! mwah!, and she squirmed and shouted, "No! No! I'm angry!" (another of last week's words), but got the giggles.

It was all very funny, but I couldn't help wondering if there was a serious undercurrent in there somewhere. I also wondered if I was being politically incorrect, going along with the joke. Maybe I should have used it to introduce a bit of political discussion, like a proper teacher.

But I didn't. At that level of English it is too much trouble. I just joined in, and threatened to kiss the Communist.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Today I had decided to show one of my classes a film. This is a low-level class I have been reading to, and they had wanted a love story. Trying to find a love story in simplified English was hard. Not many of the graded readers for second language learners at that level of English are love stories. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I found Jane Eyre.

I started reading it to them, and it wasn't very successful. It wasn't sexy enough for them. They weren't getting the FEELING of it. The simplified English was a part of the problem, and also their imperfect understanding of even the simplified English, but so was their lack of background knowledge of the times the story was set in. Also, they didn't know the story already. They hadn't even heard of it.

So I decided I should show them the film.

I forgot to check the video shops, but was told that they had a copy of at least one of the versions in the university library. I didn't know what version it was, but decided to take a risk. I went in this morning before my classes and asked to borrow it for a week.

The library gave me something called, Arashi ga Aka. I wasn't sure what this meant, but it seemed wrong. The librarian assured me that it was Jane Eyre. Not quite believing this, I took it to my first class, in which I was not planning to show the movie, in order to check it out on the video equipment.

When my first class (of only six students) saw that I had a movie they wanted to see it. We had a little debate about this, and then I decided that since the class was such a good one (these are higher level students) and they have got through most of the work I'd planned anyway, it would be a good thing to show. There are all sorts of themes in Jane Eyre that might be useful for discussion, I thought. I told them a little about the background of the story, and put the video in the machine.

The music came up, and then the title in Japanese. The title in English followed:


I couldn't believe it. Not only did I have the wrong film, the title was spelt wrongly. How did they DO that? Wasn't the correct title in the original? When they dubbed in the Japanese subtitles they must have also put in the new 'improved' title. WHY? It segued perfectly into the opening credits and looked like it was a part of the original film, but it couldn't have been. Why did they change it?

"Hey! This isn't Jane Eyre!" I shouted, and stopped the video. Then I realized that it didn't matter. This was not the class in which I was reading the story, so whatever we watched was all right, really. And Wuthering Heights has some wonderful themes we can discuss later, about women in particular. (This is a women's university.) This is a class that can handle discussion.

I explained the mixup to the students, gave more appropriate background information, and we went ahead.

The version I had borrowed turned out to be the 1939 one, with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. I had never seen it before, and it is WONDERFULLY dramatic. At first I was worried that the students would find it dull - they're used to special effects and colour and sex and all the rest of it - but they were riveted. The music, the stark scenery, the fog and shadows, the gothic drama - it seemed to slip through their defences in a way a modern film could not. One student fell asleep the moment I turned on the TV (one out of five is normal for this - it seems to be inevitable) woke up again when the dramatic music started (because I had the volume set too high at first), and sat goggle-eyed along with the others for the next hour. (We only watched half of it, and the second half will be next week.)

With a different audience I might have been laughing at the melodrama. But the students took it all so seriously it forced me to look at it differently. What were they seeing? Why did this story of early nineteenth century England hit them so hard? I have never had this result from film watching in classes before. I have never seen students get so deeply immersed in a film.

Before my third class I dashed over to the library and explained the mistake. It turned out they had Jane Eyre as well, so I grabbed that. This class has only seven students, and is the class I am reading the book to. I put the video into the machine.

It was another black and white film, from 1939 this time, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. This time, two students fell asleep when I turned the TV on, and both woke up when the dramatic music started, and stared, gobsmacked, as Jane was tormented by her cousins and then even more tormented at the school. When the bullying, evangelical Mr Brocklehurst stood Jane on a chair in the middle of the school and lectured about how she was an evil liar that everybody should shun, and then everybody turned their backs on her and filed out leaving her standing alone and forlorn on the chair, there was not a dry eye in the classroom. When her little friend Helen (Elizabeth Taylor!) died, there was audible sniffing. And when Mr Rochester's horse thundered out of the fog and fell, there was a little scream. I don't know who did that. It was not me.

Again, we had to stop the movie halfway. Both movies are over the class time (90 minutes) so I have to show them in two parts. Next week I will see the ends of both, and I think I'm looking forward to it as much as the students are. Again, I got the urge to laugh at Orson Welles' Mr Rochester ("Why is he so damned GRUMPY?" I wanted to ask), but again their serious expressions stopped me, and instead I fell headfirst into the story.

After stopping the film, right after the first fire, I read a couple of chapters of the book to the students. As it happens this ended at exactly where we'd ended the film, which was perfect. They were hearing what they'd just seen. And as they were listening to me read they were totally focused, far more so than they were last week, and I knew the film had worked its magic. They were not just listening to English, they were listening to the story. The characters had come alive.

The students had been a little resentful that they had asked me for a love story and I had given them what was apparently a story about a poor child in a nasty school, but now they understood why the background was necessary. Also, they understood what it meant when Mr Rochester took Jane's hand, after the fire, and thanked her for saving his life. What had been tame (especially compared to modern love stories) had become an impossibly romantic moment. That was where we ended, and nobody wanted to talk after that. They just sat there, dreaming.

I packed away my things, and closed up the video cabinet, and started to leave the room. The students usually leave before I do, and I paused for a moment in the doorway. I said goodbye and that I'd see them next week, and they responded abstractedly and solemnly and continued to sit, staring at the pages still in front of them.

I think they were hoping for Mr Rochester to leap out at them on his black horse, cape flapping wildly in the wind, to sweep them away from the poor, miserable, tormented lives their imaginations had suddenly given them.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


One of my Friday notes says, Trousers!

Here is the story behind this note.

In one of my classes there is a guy who is perfectly normal except for the way he dresses. He is one of my best students, and always gets good grades despite being quite shy. Even though he blushes when anybody speaks to him, he always does speak - in English - and does well on every test. He obviously studies at home, which is quite unusual for my students. I have grown used to his odd dressing style.

On Friday, however, I was rude to him. I did a double-take, and stared. I shouldn't have done that, but I COULDN'T HELP IT.

Before I tell you what he was wearing on Friday, let me tell you how he usually looks.

In the first semester, this kid had bright orange hair. Most of the students dye their hair these days, so that wasn't unusual. The colour was kind of unusual, though, especially in such a shy kid. It was a very bright orange. A glaring orange. If I had to come up with a name for it I'd call it nuclear carrot orange. It was longish, and straight, and came down over his eyes except when he pinned it back with hairclips.

I have a few guys in my classes using hairclips to keep the hair out of their eyes. (I think it looks strange on a boy, but I'm willing to accept that I could be old and boring.) This kid, however, didn't just use one hairclip, or even two. He'd use dozens, and all different colours. Sometimes he'd plait his nuclear carrot hair first, and then pin the plaits back. Actually, the first time I saw him I thought he was a girl. He also has a bigger collection of earrings than me.

All this colour on his head did not match his clothes. He always wears black. I don't think I have ever seen him in anything but black. His clothes are unusual, and sometimes startling. There are a lot of chains and pockets and ribbons and things attached to them, a sort of gothic look, but aside from that, basically, it's all black except accessories, which are sometimes coloured. This used to contrast nicely with his nuclear carrot hair, and also went with his fingernails. Oh, I forgot to mention his fingernails. He painted them black, too. And wears a lot of rings.

This semester he has changed his style a little. Not much, but his hair is no longer nuclear carrot. It is black. Although this is his natural colour he somehow manages to make it look artificial, but that might just be because I had got so used to the orange. He still uses hairclips sometimes, but not as often as before. His fingernails have gone multi-coloured, though, perhaps to compensate for the lack of colour in his hair. He now paints them differently each week. This week it was alternate black and blue and silver, and he was wearing black fingerless gloves.

But it was his trousers that made me do the double-take on Friday. I didn't notice them at first because he was sitting down. All I could see was that he was wearing a very warm black jacket, and an electric blue scarf around his neck that matched the blue fingernails. However, at some point he had to get up and walk to the other side of the classroom, going behind my podium, and when I saw his trousers I did a huge double-take and almost fell off my chair. I'm fairly sure he was looking back at someone when I did this, but I'm also pretty sure that he caught me staring immediately after that. He certainly blushed. I felt bad for staring, but WHAT DID HE EXPECT?

His trousers were... they were... I don't know how to begin describing them. How can I build a picture in your head that will startle you as much as it did me?

Imagine a pair of very short black shorts. Now imagine that you have some trouser LEGS, that go all the way down to the ankle. Just the legs. Now attach the trouser legs to the shorts using vertical straps, one each side. Leave a gap of about ten centimetres, showing a good portion of hairless, scrawny, mottled-blue-from-cold thigh.

Add great big scary boots, to complete the effect.

The trouser legs had some other bits and pieces, too - chains or buckles or pockets or something, but I'm afraid I didn't notice exactly what they were. They were BUSY trousers, but I was too stunned by the thighs to notice how they were busy.

Wouldn't you have stared?

I think what makes this kid's style so confusing and odd is that he is not in the least bit of an attention seeker. If he wore normal clothes you would think he was a normal, slightly shy boy. He is polite and quiet, studies hard, and blushes easily, especially when he talks to girls. His manner says, Don't pay any attention to me, it's embarrassing. But his clothes scream, LOOK AT ME! The disconnect between his personality and his looks is just too much. He is so MEEK.

I thought I was used to his odd clothing style. He often makes me want to stare, but I'd become good at being blase about how he looked. I don't stare, usually.



Saturday, December 03, 2005

Seriously funny

Wikkachicky said, in comments:

Your classes always sound so fun! Mine are probably incredibly boring in comparison. I'm glad you're on the other side of the globe so my students can't compare me to you!

Wikkachicky forgets (or kindly omits to mention) that she is teaching an academic subject in an academic institution. I am teaching (to use the word loosely) a language, which is NOT an academic subject, in institutions that can only be called 'academic' if you don't look too closely at what happens in the classrooms. Teaching languages is different from teaching academic subjects. Fun is a serious business in my classes. It serves a purpose. I cannot imagine why anybody who really wanted to learn from Wikkachicky's classes would be grateful for the opportunity to shout DIARRHEA! and have hysterical laughing fits. What purpose would it serve? For her to keep her students interested she does not need to be silly. She can engage her students, and be entertaining and challenging on an academic level, which might not make good writing material for a blog but I'm sure her students appreciate more than they would classes like mine.

My students probably wonder what purpose all this idiocy serves in my classes, too, but at least they are still coming to class and even look forward to them (or so some of them tell me). This means that the 'fun' is serving its subversive purpose, which is to demonstrate to them that English is NOT a boring, baffling code that they have failed to decipher in all their previous experiences with 'language learning,' but a living, meaningful language which can be used for all sorts of things, including fun, and being rude, and teasing the teacher (or the students), and expressing naughty thoughts.

It occurred to me as I was writing that last blog entry that my funniest stories inevitably come from my lowest level classes. My better classes aren't as funny. When I thought about it, I realized why. I HAVE to make my low level classes entertaining, or else there is no way the students will learn anything. One of the biggest problems I have in these classes is that the students do not pay attention. They are not interested, because their previous experiences with English have all been boring or incomprehensible. I have to get their attention somehow.

To illustrate: Students sit quietly when I come into the classroom, but the moment I open my mouth and English comes out they'll turn to the person beside them and start chatting in Japanese. THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. They do not even attempt to understand. It does not matter if all I said was "Good morning." I spoke English. They believe they cannot understand English, so I become irrelevant to them and they stop paying attention. It is as if by speaking English I have given them permission to do something else, because why would I expect them to understand? If I ask them to be quiet, they apologize and then the moment I start speaking they start chatting again, only more quietly, so as not to annoy me.

So the first thing I have to do is attract their attention - but WITHOUT using Japanese, because if they realize that I can understand Japanese they have no reason at all to use English with me. I want them to want to communicate with me, and I want English to be the only way for them to do this. They have no motivation to learn English. I am trying to provide them with motivation to try to use a language they have had only negative experiences with.

Hence the funny lessons, and hence my frequent frustration. It is hard to teach students who do not want to learn and who think you are going to torture them with something that (in their experience) is impossible.

When I said that the only word that particular class had learned was diarrhea, I wasn't joking. They have 'learned' a lot of words, and have quite an extensive English vocabulary from their many years of English language classes, but this knowledge is all in translation. When they read or hear something in English, even the most basic language, they translate into Japanese. When I ask them what they did yesterday, they stare at me and mumble, "What did you do yesterday... nani o suru... shita... anata... kinoo... kinoo nani o shimashita ka... ah naruhodo!" and then they construct an answer in Japanese, and then translate it into English, and get it wrong. You can imagine how long that takes, and how frustrating it is for the person they are 'communicating' with. But this is how they have been taught to learn a language. You translate. It is the only method they have ever encountered before my classes. This is why, if I say something funny, however simple, quite frequently the laugh will come long after I have given up. Someone finally gets the translation right and passes it around the room, and five minutes after I said something the class will be giggling and I won't know why. When I ask, they'll say, "Teacher said... teacher said..." and they don't know how to say what I said, because they've forgotten. They didn't 'understand' the English until it was translated, and now they only know the translation.

This is not really knowing vocabulary, or language, and this is why I can say that the only word the students in that class have successfully learned is the word diarrhea. They do not translate diarrhea. They KNOW it. When the student shouted DIARRHEA on Wednesday and the class cracked up, there was no time lag. She shouted it immediately, without having to translate from Japanese to English. The class collapsed into laughter instantly, without having to translate from English to Japanese. They can do this with diarrhea. They cannot do it with, for example, What are you doing? If I say, "What are you doing?" they say, "What ... are... you... doing... Nani o ... anata... shiteimasu... ah, naruhodo!" Then they construct an answer in Japanese, and translate it into English. Badly.

But they know diarrhea. They don't translate that.

I want them to know some other, more useful words. I feel I have failed them, because after a year ALL they know is diarrhea. They use it extensively, and always in the right context. If one of them wants to be excused to go to the toilet, she tells me she has diarrhea. If a student is absent, the others tell me she has diarrhea. They can make jokes with diarrhea. They use diarrhea a lot because it is funny, and because it's the only word they really know.

But I'm forgetting - they also know What's the matter? because they used it so often in the accident and illness games they played. They use that, too. If I frown, or look solemn, they ask me,

"Sensei! What's the matter?"

And sometimes they ask it for no reason at all. They like using the English they know. I should have taught them more. My classes may be fun, but I am not really that good a teacher.

(If I want a cheap, instant laugh, when they ask me what the matter is I tell them I have diarrhea.)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Messages from a madhouse

I feel as though I've just emerged from several weeks in a dusty cave full of noisy delinquents. I am exhausted. This week has been frustrating, exhausting, and funny. How do the people have energy to go out on Friday nights? I can barely make it home.

I've been taking notes on my rapidly-becoming-indispensable Palm, and they read like messages from a madhouse. I will expand on them as I have time. They are very, very short, but I know what they mean.

This one is from Wednesday. Others will follow sometime.

Psychic/not psychic diarrhea (says the Wednesday note)

One of my favourite classes, which is also my most intractably unteachable, is a class of eighteen-year-olds at a women's university. They are convinced that they are incapable of learning English, and I refuse to believe them. They think I am mad, but seem to like me anyway. I've been teaching this class since April, and so far they have learned one word. I have written about this before. (The word is diarrhea.)

On Wednesday one of the students came up to me and grabbed my new turtleneck long-sleeved t-shirt by the shoulder. This student has a voice like a foghorn, and likes to use it. I looked at her, and she looked at me, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. So I turned my head to face the rest of the class, spread my arms, and we yelled it in unison:


It was brilliantly silly. The other students thought we'd rehearsed it, but we were as surprised as they were. It turned out that she works at one of the Uniqlo outlets part-time. I hadn't known that.

When the laughter died down she said (in Japanese), totally shocked,

"How did you know what I was going to say?"

"I'm psychic," I told her. "I can read your mind." I tapped my temple. (My contact lens did not fall out).

I think she believed me.

In the same class, I had them doing the 'accidents' game. They've finished the 'aches and pains' one, and it went so well I thought they might be willing to try something similar even with the more difficult language.

They were. The game went well, and they had fun (and might have even learned something). I had them doing the mime game with that as well, and it was a hoot. They couldn't remember the vocabulary, so even when it was clear what sort of accident the mimer was having they'd be yelling and screaming in Japanese, saying, "I KNOW! I KNOW!" while frantically looking for the words on their papers, and then yelling out, "YOU WALKED INTO A DOOR AND BROKE YOUR NOSE!" in appallingly accented English. (I'd made them write all the sentences out before, and they had to say them properly or they wouldn't get the point.)

Right at the end one student mimed sitting on a tack. She sat down and shot straight up again clutching her bottom. That was funny enough, but before anybody could even begin looking for the right sentence the Uniqlo student leaped up, pointed at her, and bellowed,


I should have seen that one coming, but I didn't. I guess I'm not psychic after all.

There was no point in trying to restore normality and continue the class after that, so we finished fifteen minutes early. When I left the classroom most of the students were still collapsed in their chairs, wiping their eyes and emitting wailing, exhausted little giggles whenever they looked at each other.

As I went down to the teachers' room I wondered whether it was time to teach the class another word. The teachers in the classrooms around me must be tired of the frequent shouts of "DIARRHEA!" from my room. But which word? I was so preoccupied by this thought that I completely forgot the teachers' room doorknob hazard, and got a huge static zap.

You can work up a real charge, laughing.