Japanese Students Of English Respond To Virginia Tech Massacre
Here in Japan, the "ogatarenkyu" is in full swing. This translates literally as "large-type consecutive holiday," the segment of the year commonly referred to as Golden Week. In this week, the mandated holidays do not actually add up to a week, but most outfits close down at this time of year, and most people do get a week off.
Because of Golden Week, we are very busy at Waniguchi Gakko right now, as many Japanese students of English finally get round to taking some of those lessons they've been telling themselves they would take ... one day.
One day having arrived, I had a full schedule on Tuesday 1 May 2007, and two of my classes were for high-level students. For both classes, I tasked them to list five stories that had been in the news, and then to choose which one they would like to discuss.
For the first group, it was obvious that the story they must discuss had to be the Virginia Tech massacre perpetrated by Cho Seung Hui.
The second class ... well, they were obviously interested in Cho's day of carnage, but deemed it to be too horrific to discuss. Having gotten that far, they then went on to discuss exactly why it was too horrific to discuss, and by the time they had been into all the ins and outs of it, the lesson was over.
Both sets of high-level students surfaced responses to Cho's massacre in the same two ways.
First, the massacre confirmed their stereotypical view of America as a land of gun nuts. Two of them had undergone personal experiences in the States which had confirmed their prejudices.
One of my students, who these days works as a translator, translating English-language romance novels into Japanese, went on a homestay in America many years ago. What stuck in her mind that that when her nice and friendly host family welcomed her to America, one of the very first things they absolutely insisted on doing was to make sure she knew how to use the family gun.
In a Japanese context, this would be anomalous. If you were a guest in a Japanese house, whether a guest who was paying or one who had been invited in for free, your Japanese hosts would not show you the way to the family six shooter. They would not anticipate that you might have a need for it.
Another student, well, his first taste of America took him into TAXI DRIVER territory. The very first week, he went to a Chinese restaurant and there was a shootout outside, "some crazy guy with guns and rifles," and someone was killed.
"I thought this was how it was going to be the whole time I was in America, that I'd have a shootout every day, but, no, there was only the one."
Because a teacher's role, in modern language teaching, is to facilitate the interaction of the students rather than to hog the stage, I didn't surface my own American gun experience.
My personal adventures in America have been limited. Once I spent a week in Hawaii. Another time, I went to New Orleans for a week on business. The third time, I spent a few days in San Francisco then took a Grayhound bus all the way to New York, stopping off in Salt Lake City and Chicago.
After my bus left the terminal in San Francisco, we headed through the pretty gritty urban area to the east. After a while, the bus made an unscheduled stop. What was going on? I had no idea.
A few minutes passed, then a couple of friendly American cops got on the bus, looking very relaxed. They departed, shortly, taking with them one of the passengers, whom they had abducted from the back of the bus.
I asked one of the other passengers why the cops had come for the guy, and I was told that the passenger had been waving a gun around, and apparently the driver had been unable to reconcile this action on the passenger's part with his notions of normative American behavior.
My students, then, all saw America as being a dangerously gun-crazy society, and said they couldn't understand why Americans permitted gun use.
That said, when I paired them up and had one play the role of a gun-sceptical Japanese citizen, the voice of the rational world, and the other play the role of a die-hard pro-gun American nut, they effortlessly came out with all the standard American arguments for the possession of guns. These they would have seen dissected and discussed repeatedly on Japanese television in other weeks.
All the students had a second thing in common: they were pretty shocked by Cho's English. One said so in as many words:
"I was shocked by his English. He's been in America since he was ten, but his English was almost incomprehensible. At first I thought he was speaking Korean."
All the students thought that the main reason Cho was socially isolated was because his English was so lousy that he couldn't interact socially with his peers at Virginia Tech.
I explained that there was nothing wrong with Cho's English. Having arrived in America at a pretty early age, he was the functional equivalent of a fully-fledged native speaker of English. But he was not a trained announcer, and he was not making any concessions for Japanese auditors who would have benefited from a more measured delivery.
He was speaking in authentic native speaker mode, running the words together, making, in effect, compounds that they would not find in their dictionaries.
My high-level students would do fine with the language of English broadcasters, trained to deliver information in a clear and measured manner, but the no-holds-barred diatribe which Cho committed to video was out of their experience.
I also explained that I, myself, returning to New Zealand after having spent some years in Japan, had a certain amount of trouble tuning my ear to native speaker New Zealand English, and it took me a while to be 100% with it.
While some of the teachers at Waniguchi Gakko are from the States, the students, as a rule, never hear those teachers speak truly authentic native speaker English. What they get in class is slower, less idiomatic, and has been screened for expletive before being delivered.
In the teacher's room, when it gets busy, I have living Americans around me, engaging in uncensored conversations at a pace which makes no concessions for any imagined weaknesses on the part of the auditor.
Because I had two groups of high-level students and gave each the job of coming up with five news topics, between them they surfaced more than five, although there were some duplicates. Other topics that they came up with included the ongoing visit of Japan's prime minister Abe to the Middle East, the recent assassination of the mayor of Nagasaki, and Golden Week.
I recently had one of my lessons observed, and the instructor who gave me feedback on it gave me a good bit of advice:
"When you're having students make a list, tell one of them to be the scribe, and write down the items that the students come up with."
I tried this, and it turned out to be good advice. Not every lesson involves making a list, of course, but many do. For example, a list of movies that I had another group of students make in one of Tuesday's lesson.
Here in Japan, my personal news is that my cooking is getting just a wee bit more adventurous. For most of my life, my cooking has been at the caveman level: take a raw piece of the flesh of a dead animal (a large piece, for preference) then burn it on both sides.
In Japan, my cooking became a little more adventurous, and I started sometimes frying up, in addition to meat, things such as mushrooms, eggplant and capsicums. But, if I fried three of these things for one meal, I always fried them one at a time, and put them on the plate in three separate piles.
Then, recently, I saw a segment of a cooking program on TV. It must have been part of some kid's program my daughter was watching, since I never tune into cooking shows.
On the TV, I saw someone frying not one thing at a time but two things at once. Mushrooms plus capsicum in the same pan.
I thought that was pretty awesomely sophisticated, so, Tuesday night, it being one of my infrequent nights to do the cooking, I gave it a shot. And it worked out pretty good. The meal I put on the table ended up being chicken, baked potatoes, short-grained Japanese rice, mushrooms, green capsicum, eggplant, and a salad comprised of tomatoes, lettuce, mung beans and foliage grown from soy beans.
Unfortunately, in the excitement of cookery, I made the mistake of moving a little too fast in the kitchen, and one tiny slip led to a cup being knocked off into the sink, where it fell slap bang into one of the pretty cat dishes that my wife bought in Devonport, New Zealand, and smashed it into pieces.
Still, I'm gradually climbing the cookery curve, and I think there's plenty of blue sky here. The are probably, I speculate, cooking techniques even more sophisticated than frying two things together in the same frypan. With the passage of time, perhaps I'll find out.
Just to wrap up on Virginia Tech, the massacre has completely died out of the news. It was the number one topic of discussion in my two high-level classes on Tuesday simply because most of the students hadn't attended an English conversation class for weeks, so hadn't yet shared their reactions with each other.
On the 7 pm NHK news on Tuesday 1 May, the number one topic was the price of gasoline, which apparently has shot up in Japan. Because I don't drive, this is one thing that I don't have to worry about.
Regarding the ogatarenkyu, my wife and I are not taking a week off. Waniguchi Gakko operates right through the year, except for a period at New Year, and the civil service outfit for which my wife works also keeps going despite the fact that one of Japan's main holiday breaks is in full swing.
However, I am taking Friday 4 May off, and we will go together as a family, my wife and daughter and me, for another visit to the tourist paradise of Gunma Prefecture, where we have a two-night three day excursion planned.
My brain is like a sieve ... I was going to wrap up this post with an account of the changes I've seen over the years in the standard of English. But it slipped my mind. Then the thought jumped back as I was going through my e-mail.
I started teaching at Waniguchi Gakko roughly ten years ago. Then I went off to do other things, and only returned to the school last year. What has changed, really, is that the average level of conversational English has improved out of sight.
These days, I no longer get students who show up in class unable to make the sentence "This is a pen." I do get students who would be struggling to make the question "Is this a pen?" but I no longer get students who are starting from absolute zero.
Ten years ago, I'd have women who were maybe 65 years old, who never went to high school, and who really were starting from zero. Those days are pretty much over.
The true beginners are a thing of the past, since all Japanese people are exposed to English through TV, not always to their benefit. The term "Oh my God!" has, for example, become a bit of a catch phrase, and I have to tell students that this phrase is a little strong, and is not always conversationally appropriate.
So the absolute beginners are more or less gone, and the proportion of students who have fairly high-level English has shot up. These days, I have a couple of students for whom it is difficult to come up with appropriate challenges, one being the woman who works translating romance novels, and the other being a student who is training to be a simultaneous translator.
When I first started teaching at Waniguchi Gakko, I was there for two years before leaving to go teach corporate English. (At least, I thought I was going to teach corporate English, but once I had taken on my new job I discovered, not to my pleasure, that most of my time would be spent teaching junior high school.)
In those first two years, I taught many, many students, but most of them have moved on. I think that in the months since I started back at the school in June of 2006, only two students from the old days recognized my face. Naturally, they asked what I'd done in those years, but, on both occasions, I fobbed them off with an extremely short version of the truth. The long version, the saga, I don't have time for.