the third wheel

July 21, 2009

Alright! Summer holidays. No classes for five weeks. I do have a list as long as my arm of things I need to do, such as developing photos, posting certain things home, marking hundreds of haiku, and preparing for my school’s open day, but in the meantime…

I guess I’m caught in some kind of vortex where I am neither in touch with Japan nor completely alien to it. This results in a number of misunderstandings and presumptions. For example, the assumption that as a white guy in Japan I am only here to try to hook up with Japanese women, contrasted with the shocked gasps from my students when they ask me ‘Japanese girl is cute?’ and I say ‘yes.’¬†Likewise, some people go bananas when they hear me utter even the most basic Japanese phrase, while others refuse to talk to me until I am fluent in the language.

Ironically, the thing that most reliably earns me the admiration and acceptance from Japanese people, particularly my students, is the fact that I carry around my Nintendo DS with a Japanese dictionary loaded on it. Of course, it’s not because of the fact that I’m making an effort to learn the language that they recoil in shock, but rather that I have a DS, and I didn’t buy it over here.

There are probably two easy routes out of this situation: either to become completely immsersed in Japanese language, culture and tradition, or to reject it completely. However, neither of these options appeal to me, for obvious reasons. I guess I should have known before arriving here that I would be destined to remain on the liminality between being a real person and a prop, but I could probably have never predicted the repercussions and reverberations, or how simply being identified as an outsider can effect every facet of my daily life over here.

I have chosen to profile some of my more memorable students in this blog.

Many of them go to my special school. It’s still really hard for me to go there. I’m not fnding the experience any more comfortable even after a year. The kids don’t have any chance of learning a foreign language, so the fact that they insist on even having English classes still doesn’t make sense to me. I would be just as useful, if not more so, in other classes where I could freely participate, instead of standing at the front of the room reciting phrases that they will forget as soon as I produce a picture of a koala (to be fair, this phenomenon is not exclusive to my special school).

Nevertheless, there are a few individuals who make the arduous experience more enjoyable. For example, Yuta. This kid always had a smile on his face. In some ways I kinda envied that about him. I wasn’t ever really sure what he was saying in Japanese, cause my Japanese still wasn’t good enough when I was teaching him. But he did know three or four very important English words: “I like ~,” and “yes.”

Our meetings would proceed as follows, never straying from this basic but effective formula: Yuta would spot me from across the room/hallway/yard, and come barreling over towards me, coming to an unsteadily gleeful stop about a foot away from me. In his eyes was an unbridled lust for life and a complete lack of intimidation.

“I like….sushi!”

“Haha! Really?”

“Yes! Yes!”

“What’s your favourite sushi?”

“Yes! Yes!”

He would then turn on his heels and bound away from me, perhaps at a greater speed than that with which he arrived. Sometimes, he would switch it up.

“I like….hanbaagu (Japanese for ‘hamburger’)!”

“Is that so, Yuta?”

“Yes! Yes!”


He was hilarious.

These days I spend the most time at Nishigo hanging out with this girl called Yuka. She’s 16, but owing to whatever disability it is that she has, only looks about 11. I like her because even though she knows I usually can’t understand her, she never slows down what she’s saying and comes to hang out with me week in, week out. She always asks me to sit next to her on the bus and then tells her (speechless) friends about it. She asks me questions like, “are there birds in Australia?” Which may seem stupid, but is actually really cute. She loves singing and, like Yuta, doesn’t let a damn thing bring her down, ever.

She tells me how she fell over on her arse at school, she warned me to take care cause of the swine flu when I went to Hong Kong, and talks about the scary bugs around her house. She comes into my office every Monday at 3:20pm to warn me that the bus is coming soon and I shouldn’t be late. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea what she’s saying and have trouble identifying a single Japanese word amongst the torrent. But I like her because she talks to me more than any student or teacher at that entire school.

Back at Kohnan, there is Yurie. I am not sure whether it is me or Australia that she is in love with (I suspect it is the latter), but we became friends through her proudly presenting me with a new flavour of Tim Tam each week. The first one was something like wild raspberry, and I was suitably impressed. I guess her older sister lives in Tokyo or something, and has more reliable access to strange and exotic (and exorbitantly priced) foreign delicacies. Anyway, she always says to me ‘Australia ikitai! (I want to go to Australia!).’

Her English is, I guess, fairly standard for a san-nensei student at my school, or maybe a little above average. She understands everything I say to her, and I mostly understand everything she says to me. It’s a bad habit, that I usually speak in English to my students and they usually speak in Japanese to me, but in the end I suppose it’s the most reliable way to communicate with them.

She is really pretty and outgoing, which is why it’s hard for me to understand why she’s not somewhere closer to the top of the social pecking order at my school. She always has a dazed, anime-style look in her eyes and an adorable habit of always showing up five seconds too late to whatever it is that has grabbed my students attention, and then lingering around for a few moments after the cacophony has subsided just to smile at me and make sure I had seen it, too.

Nine times out of ten when I see her, she is alone, either knitting or reading in an empty classroom. She enjoys horror movies and I burst out laughing when I was describing No Country for Old Men and she cocked her head and chimed in with a quizzical “splatter!?”

As for the boys, easily the most noteworthy must be The Rock Star. This guy! At my school, wearing a uniform isn’t compulsory, and he takes full advantage of this fact. I’ve never, not once, seen him wearing regulation school pants. Before school, after school, during lunch, even in the ten-minute break between classes, he is perched upon a desk with an acoustic guitar, and a handful of doe-eyed Japanese girls staring up at him. He is also prominent in that he has probably the waviest hair of any of my students, so much so that one of the girls commented that we look ‘like brothers’ together. He also likes to exploit this particular gift that has been bestowed upon him, since he gets his haircut like every two weeks. Needless to say, we look nothing alike.

But by far my favourite moment with The Rock Star, was one day a couple of months ago, when I arrived at school to see him decked out in bright blue skinny jeans, a Strokes-esque vest and a bright white t-shirt underneath. By the start of the fourth period, he was wearing three-quarter length jeans, and a hoodie. After school, he had regressed entirely into a pair of shorts and a V-neck t-shirt, designed entirely to accentuate the fragile lines of Japanese dudes’ shoulder blades and collar bones. Yeah – three costume changes in one regulation day! And not a school tie to be seen. He’s soooo dreamy.

The punchline of the story, however, has to be the fact that this guy hates me, because one sad day he realised that I can play guitar way, way better than him. And I don’t even have to dress up to look like I’m in a rock band.

I guess that’s enough for today. But do not despair, avid reader! I have plenty more anecdotes to share with you.¬†Stay tuned for another edition of ‘serious breaches of privacy and potentially inappopriate student-teacher relations in the Land of the Rising Sun!’

So long!