9.12.2007

It's the Pip Hanson Show, The Book, The Musical: Now a Major Motion Picture!

I am sitting in an internet cafe drinking Chinese tea. Through the store windows I can see Japanese rain and Japanese traffic. The cafe (which has a full bar) has a covered patio with plastic transparent plastic curtains in the back so people are still able to sit outside. At one patio table sits a girl with a green mesh trucker cap with a silver sequined front. My waitress is tiny and cute and has very short hair. I am in love with her, of course, but like most Tokyo girls she is so jaded and bored of gaijin that I might as well be covered in guano. Or maybe that is just her inscrutable Asian countenance.

The keyboard is covered in Japanese as well as English and the layout is different; the space bar is about two keys long and the key next to it switches the keyboard over to Japanese. While typing I will hit the key where I think the space bar should be and suddenly二里利故意手巣にかに幹に身町背地味いとい midsentence.* Also I cannot seem to find the apostrophe no matter how I search, so I need to be creative with my wording. No contractions today, sorry.

I am waiting for my second block of lessons to begin in about an hour, at 6:15 p.m. Yes, my second block of lessons. I have what some might consider the schedule from hell: Begin work at 8:25 a.m. Work for three hours. Then a six and a half hour break, only to return at 6:15 and teach for another three hours. This is my schedule four days a week; On Saturday I have a shorter break and teach for seven or eight hours. I have Sunday and Wednesday off. Everyone says split shifts suck but though it's not ideal, I don't think it will be so bad. In six hours I can go home, eat some lunch, study some Japanese, and take a nap. Maybe even prepare for my evening's lessons, though no one else does in my Language Center.

Teaching English is not hard. The training made it seem really hard, applying confusing methodology and linguistic theory to a job that is not much more than speaking slowly to people who barely understand you. But it is not hard. The toughest part, I am told, is staying awake; I imagine that will come in a month or so when I am used to everything. But today was my first day in the field and it went fine (the first half). There will be a wrinkle or two, but not for long.

Nevertheless I am not excited about this job. It is easy to see the where this road leads because I am surrounded with extreme examples of what ten years would be like at Berlitz. On the one hand, I have the bitter lifers who have been doing the same thing forever; on the other, the peppy cheerleaders who slowly climbed the company ladder because they think this is all so neat. Neither one is appealing because I cannot really be enthusiastic about this work.

Really, I don't think the job is so terrible. My schedule sucks because I am a rookie, but if I pay dues (though to use that phrase in this context makes my skin crawl) I will achieve seniority. My schedule will improve along with my salary (the latter minimally, I am sure). And the work is almost admirable. I had a distaste for teaching English that was hard to get over, but after watching the Japanese students I respect them for wanting to learn English. That makes the job a more bearable.

Eikaiwa (English conversation classes) is a big industry in Japan. Every single train station seems to have at least one outpost from one of the big eikaiwa companies, and downtown there are literally thousands of them. Can you imagine a thriving industry in America that teaches Spanish? Because I cannot. Of course many Americans learn another language, but there is no way an enormous percentage of the population would regularly attend Spanish conversation classes by choice. Yet every day Japanese students pack the classrooms of the eikaiwa, patiently and shyly studying their little textbooks. They come for various reasons, and not all by choice. Some are only here because their company will pay for it and give them a promotion if they can then pass a certain English test.

But many are here out of a genuine interest in the language. Maybe they come because they lived in, say, New Zealand twenty years ago for college; though they may never return, studying English keeps that memory alive. Maybe they want to forget the humdrum of life as a middle-class Japanese person for forty minutes a week before they return to their jobs, families and responsibilities. I admire their quiet fascination with life outside of Japan. My feeling is that English offers them a brief escape from Japanese life, which I can imagine would be stifling. Seeing this makes me a little sad, too.

During training I watched several lessons on a closed-circuit video camera. (Yes, there are cameras in the classrooms.) One student was a pleasant, soft-spoken man with thinning hair and a round face. He was wearing the standard-issue salaryman uniform: black suit with a white shirt, top button undone. The subject for the day was "budgets" so the instructor began by asking him about his own job. Is his department over or under budget every month? Is it ahead of or behind schedule? Etc. With modest pride the man, who worked at Mitsubishi, said that his department was always under budget and ahead of schedule. A successful ladder-climber at the top of his game. But when the instructor asked if he liked his job he sagged a bit and shook his head. "No... I don't... like job."

(I've found an apostrophe key! Hoozah.)

It makes the job more bearable to know that students like him must be getting something out of the lesson, enough to devote a lot of time and money to them. The lessons are expensive; Berlitz charges ¥340,000 for forty lessons. That's not quite $3400, and many students go through forty lessons in a month.

Despite the high cost of these lessons, the plush days of the Seventies and Eighties are over. From what I've read, teaching English in Japan used to be like picking bags of money off of low-hanging branches, with high demand and low supply. But the economy is not what it used to be and there is a larger supply of English teachers now. The average salary of an English teacher in Japan has remained the same for eighteen years, despite inflation.




And that's fine, I guess. I can't complain about anything in my life and I'm going to try not to start now. Without going into too much detail (I'm about to go to bed) I will say that things are a bit rough right now. The past nine days have been a rude awakening of several kinds, and there are some lean times in my future. I'll leave it at that. And if that's all that's wrong with life than I should be grateful. Mind you, going home is not even a consideration. Instead I'm determined to improve my situation, however I have to do that. I'll leave it at that and try to elaborate later. Love to all of you.

pH




*For those of you who can't read Japanese, that was gibberish. It was simply the result of typing, in English, "I will be writing in Japanese" after hitting the magic button.

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