Sunday, 30 June 2013

Kuri Versus Hayate (a story in pictures)

Hayate has an old kids' soccer ball he found under a bush in the park. Kuri doesn't really like the ball all that much, but stealing it annoys Hayate and then he chases her. She likes being chased, so she steals the ball. Sometimes Hayate doesn't cooperate though.

This is boring.
Oooh, what's that I spy?
He's not looking, I bet I could just...
Veeery slowly...
Easy does it...
Gottcha ball! It's mine!
So... you probably want this back, right?
You gonna come get it?
Why are you over there now?
Stupid ball.
Yes, my bedroom is a mess. ごめんね。

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Saturday, 29 June 2013

Miss Fatty and Miss Watermelon

Stick thin arm of a Japanese school girl
Painfully thin

“I’m such a fatty” she says, tracing a huge invisible belly with her hands in case I don’t understand her Japanese. She’s seven years old and built like a whippet. Her older sister and older sister’s two friends nod understandingly. “We should go on a diet” they agree. I kneel down and put my hands around the littlest girl’s waist. My fingers almost touch. “Look how tiny you are!” I say. She laughs. We joke around as I pretend to miss-hear their names and repeat back silly words instead: “Watermelon? Your name is Watermelon? Nice to meet you Miss Watermelon.” We begin making nicknames. I become “Hot Teacher” because I constantly complain about how hot it is. The littlest girl names herself Debu-chan, Miss Fatty. I tell her I’m going to call her Hana-chan instead, Miss Flower. She beams and hugs me. Later she jumps onto my back. She weighs so little that I only realise I am holding her when I notice a foot tapping against my hip.

Japanese father carring baby walking with toddler on the beach
This is what I want childhood to look like. Facing the horizon, not the mirror.
I read so many stories about little girls and body image and how to talk about this stuff, but when I find myself on the spot and trying to make myself understood in Japanese and in a context that will make sense culturally I always fumble. I wish I had told her that her stomach muscles are amazing and that she can to handstands and cartwheels and finish the monkey bars faster than anyone else in her class and that all these wonderful things her body can do matter so much more than how it looks or what numbers are attached to it. But instead I just told her that she was beautiful. And it’s not good enough.

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Thursday, 27 June 2013

和製英語文法 (Japanese) English Grammar

Creepy Engrish Evokes Silence of the Lambs

Japanese is full of English words and phrases. Many of them are simply borrowed from English (in much the same way English speakers who don’t speak any French or German will say “C'est la vie” or “Gesundheit” or “Adiós”), but others are combinations or have meanings unique to Japan. They are called 和製英語: Made-in-Japan English. For most Japanese people it is impossible to distinguish between English and Made-in-Japan English, and talking about the differences is a popular talk-show or educational broadcast topic. Sometimes the differences spring from the era a word was introduced into Japanese. Some words meant something different in nineteenth century than they do in the twenty-first, but in Japan it remains frozen in time. In other cases the basic meaning has spun new connotations: smart, as in “smartly dressed”, has come to mean “thin” in Japanese while the more common usage in English is to express intelligence. Other words have been used in promotional ways that have warped their meanings, for example “mansion” to refer to a concrete apartment building. My favourites, however, are the true Japanese originals. See if you can figure these out (no cheating, answers at the end of the post):
Handle Keeper
Cunning Paper
Silver Seat
Paper Driver
Less charming but becoming increasingly burned into my brain is a particularly Japanese version of English sentence structure. For over two hundred years Japanese students have studied English by translating sentences in and out of Japanese. This has led to textbooks full of thoroughly unnatural English passages that follow Japanese word order or common phraseologies. The most frustrating of these for me (teaching Junior High) are the use of “let’s”, “enjoy” and rhetorical questions. In Japanese volitional verbs conjugate to ~しょう, which is translated into English as “let’s ~”. This is fine in sentences like “let’s get a drink” but in Japanese it’s used for a much wider range of situations, including “shall I ~?” and giving instructions. The “us” in “let’s” is largely ignored, leading to peculiar sentences such as “let’s go with us”, “let’s open your textbook” and “let’s call you tomorrow?” Even more awkward is when 頑張る, usually translated as “do one’s best” is used in the volitional (頑張りましょう, one of the most frequently used expressions in any Japanese school) and becomes “let’s do your best” or “let’s do my best”. In one particularly awkward conversation at a work party a JTE who was waxing lyrical about the joys of parenthood turned to me and said “Let’s make a baby!” Then, sensing that it was not exactly what he had wanted to say, corrected himself to “Let’s make a baby with your husband!” There’s also a generally acceptance that adding “let’s” to a present-participial verb makes an invitation: “let’s dancing” or “let’s walking”.

Enrgrish Christmas decoration
Dansing a Go Santa picture courtesy of Kachiepamyu
“Enjoy” is one of the first Japanese-English-isms to creep into unsuspecting expats’ vocabularies. It pops up everywhere, from “will you enjoy a picnic tomorrow?” to “do you enjoy karaoke every day?” through to the classic combo “let’s enjoying!” Enjoy is another victim of the translate-a-Japanese-word-with-no-direct-equivalent phenomenon: 楽しむ (to enjoy but also to anticipate or experience). “Enjoy” is synonymous with “do” for many Japanese speakers of English. I once tried to explain to a teacher that “do you enjoy karaoke every day?” is not actually asking someone if they do karaoke every day, it assumes that they do it every day and is asking if sometimes they don’t have fun. I wasn’t able to convince her.
Rhetorical questions are not as grammatically confusing but just… odd. Students are taught to include questions and repartition in every English speech, just like they would in Japanese, but the effect is not the same. The textbook my schools use actually has a list of these weird questions in an activity box labelled “make your presentation sound more natural”. Seriously?! These speeches come out as:
‘My Dream.’ Do you have a dream? I’m going to tell you about my dream. My dream is to be a pilot. Do you know why? It is because I like pilots. So, my dream is to become a pilot. I have dreamed it for a long time. Everyone, let’s treasure your dream.
This would probably win an essay contest. I might actually pursue a future career in textbook publishing.

"Handle Keeper" is a designated driver, the person who doesn't drink
"Cunning Paper" is a cheat sheet, a list of answers smuggled into a test
"Silver Seat" is the seat reserved for the elderly on public transport
"Paper Driver" is someone who has a license but never actually drives
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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Advertisments as (Post-)Adoption Fundraising?

It's pretty well known that adoption comes with some hefty initial financial costs. There are entire online communities dedicated to sharing adoption fund-raising ideas. We've never been comfortable asking for money, but I did look into some of the more innovative corporate partnership arrangements. Just Love Coffee sounded like a perfect match for us~ we love coffee, people could buy something pretty much everyone buys regularly anyway, we'd get some of the profits and the coffees are all farmed sustainably and purchased under fair trade conditions. Perfect! Unfortunately, however, the company at present only operates in the US. So that was that. There are also companies like Zoe Clothing Co, Olive Tree Promise and Scarlet Threads that offer both adoption fund-raising packages and their own charitable works. All great stuff, but it wasn't for us. We don't need a specific sum in order to finalise our adoption. We have all the fees we need. We'd just like a bit extra to cover things like buying furniture for his room, new clothes so he doesn't go to his new school wearing clothes he brings from the orphanage, and so on. Swimming lessons. A bicycle. Not the kinds of things you do fund-raising drives for. So to cut a long story short, I'm thinking about trying to generate a little bit of extra revenue through unobtrusive advertising/affiliate links. I'm not even sure if there are advertisers out there who would pay me, but we'll see!

The reason I am posting about it now is that I have occasionally seen readers on other blogs get very upset about advertising and I'm curious whether it's something anyone who reads this blog would be upset by?  Let me know.

Edit: Holy cow, I take that "we have enough money" thing back o.0 A significant number of flights across the country and a couple of weeks of hotel bills just got added on that we had not budgeted for. Things are going to be tight.
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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Classroom Heatstroke

Japanese elementary PE uniforms kids lying on dirt in the sun
These are PE uniforms, what they wear in class is much warmer

It was in the mid 30s the other day and 83% humidity. Inside the classrooms there was not a breath of wind. It was stifling, sticky, and the smell of sweaty teenagers was thick in the air. By second period most of the kids had given up on trying to concentrate and were sleeping at their desks or claiming headaches and going to the nurse for ice-packs. The first student fainted around lunch time.This is the coldest June since I've been here too, by the way.

Japanese public schools (elementary and junior high) generally do not have any air-conditioning or even fans. It’s particularly hard for the boys in JHS because their uniform required long dark trousers and collared shirts buttoned to the top. From June until we break for the summer holiday in mid-July, very little learning takes place. The kids become almost catatonic, and the teachers (myself included) become more and more irritable as we stand in front of an unresponsive class with sweat dripping down our backs wondering what the point is.
When I first began teaching here I was told that schools just can’t afford the electricity cost of running fans for air conditioners. It seemed like a plausible reason; Japanese schools are chronically underfunded. But then I taught at one elementary school where class 6-1 had fans and 6-2 had none. The classrooms were beside each other. I asked about it and was told that if, in a given year, the parents are willing to pay for the power costs their children can have what-ever cooling system the parents will cover. So the class 6-2 parents had said their kids should just suffer, while the class 6-1 parents had forked over the cash. Then while a school building was being rebuilt, we used temporary buildings made of metal. Because they get so hot, air conditioners were installed and were switched on when it hit 30 degrees, despite the classrooms in the old section of the school regularly pushing 40.
During a summer workshop I raised the question of air conditioners with a group of elementary teachers and they said that if the schools had air conditioning there would be no need for a summer vacation because it would no longer be too hot to study. So they were in favour of no air conditioning. When I suggested that we waste a good two months (June, half of July and half of September) because the kids can’t concentrate in the heat, they agreed. It never used to be this hot, they said. Just last week another group of teachers said the same thing: “It was never this hot when we were students. No one ever passed out from heatstroke in class when we were students.”
According to this article, the issue of air conditioning is extremely divisive in the wider community. The author describes a man coming to a board of education meeting apparently for the sole purpose of ranting against the idea that kids be kept cool (despite no one actually having suggested it). People like this man often refer to their own childhood, missing the point that the temperatures kids these days are enduring are nothing like the summers of the past. This is especially true of mega-cities like Tokyo, where high rise buildings densely crammed together have raised temperatures inside the city. Even in my rural corner of Japan, temperatures have gone up so much in the past fifty years that crops people used to farm can no longer survive, and tropical plants that used to be impossible to grow here are flourishing (according to my neighbours). The old fashioned idea that children should just learn to endure fails to take into account these dramatic changes, and the increasing incidences of heat-stroke in the classroom are the result.

Of course, in winter we freeze...
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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Kids and Reading

Stickers to reward reading for kids
Reading is cool, this bear says so

I buy a lot of stickers from places like FBC to give to my students. In one variety pack I got a set of “reading celebration” stickers. I absolutely will never use them. They just don’t make any sense here. Kids here love to read. Japan has always had an exceptionally high literacy rate, much higher than any European country in the nineteenth century and still very high today. The fact that kids enjoy poetry-based games should indicate the central role of literature in culture. Of course, manga play a big part in promoting literacy. Once looked down on as a distraction from “real reading”, school libraries in Australia are increasingly looking to manga and comics to help facilitate an interest in reading and literacy skills. In a Japanese classroom, the difficulty can be getting the kids to put their books away and stop reading long enough to pay attention to the class. I don’t even know how I would explain that in Australia and America we need incentive cards and stickers to get some kids to open a book.
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