Lesson 1: Make Them Cry

I strolled into the homely little cafe wearing a bright red sweater, a beaming smile on my face and holding a bag full of teaching aids. At last fulfilling my inevitable destiny as a ‘gaijin’ or foreigner in Japan, I was trying out for my first ever English teaching job.

The online advertisement promised that two friendly four-year-olds were waiting for an easygoing babysitter and language teacher who would run through their basic lessons, while their mothers supervised. Everything was planned to take place in a cozy, make-shift classroom that had been lovingly styled out of the backroom of a cafe. All necessary books, worksheets and toys would be provided.

“Do you have any prior child rearing experience?” Friends and family ventured to ask me (and not doing a very good job of hiding their anxiety).

“I have a younger sibling,” I pointed out, “And they're still alive. Isn’t that qualification enough?”

Jokes aside, I pride myself on having rather extensive knowledge in the field of child care. There were always books on nutrition, child development, psychology and children’s education scattered around the rooms of my house and I spent a lot of time reading them as a teenager. 

The only problem?

All my knowledge was theoretical. Or not quite relevant to....human offspring.

In real life, most new mothers took one look at my short hair, pierced nose and (admittedly excessive) use of ultra-dark eyeliner and suddenly decided that their infants’ necks were too delicate for them to be handed around like parcels. Truth be told, I’d never actually worked with any child younger than the age of ten. However, I was convinced that after a demo session under the guidance of my employer, I’d know my young charges well enough to come up with a concrete teaching strategy. 

So we return to a cafe’s backroom on a chilly winter afternoon, with me right in the crossfire of Japan’s obsession with an English language education. 

After meeting one of the mothers who would also be my employer, I was introduced to two adorable children. Sayaka had gorgeous chubby cheeks and she flashed a soft smile at me as she whispered ‘Hello’. She was able to reach out and give me a glass bead in a sign of friendship before cowering behind her mother again. 

On the other hand, an over-energetic Jun deigned to grin at me, demanded to know if I’d watched his favorite TV show, and then proceeded to throw off some cushions and run on the sofa while screaming and pretending to shoot us all with a finger gun. (For the sake of maintaining anonymity, I’ve changed everyone’s names in this story.)

“So,” Sayaka's mother said in Japanese, turning to me with a smile, “We don’t usually do this, but I thought that since this is a demo lesson, we could make it two hours: one hour for each child. Shall we start?"

That was when I started feeling something akin to dread. 

In the first place, I wasn’t getting paid for this demo lesson. Though I had accepted that, suddenly having my work time doubled without any prior notice came as a slight shock. Not to mention, I wasn’t really sure if two easily distracted four-year-olds would be able to sit still for twenty minutes to learn a foreign language, let alone one hundred and twenty, and that too after an entire day at school. 

Still, I was determined to be as cooperative as possible, so I swallowed my protest and settled in for a long evening. 

“We can start with Sayaka,” the mother suggested, pulling her daughter out from behind her again, “While Jun…ah, calms down and eats something, perhaps.”

Jun’s mother took the hint and bribed him to come sit with her by ordering an ice cream. I glanced at the price on a menu board and sucked in a sharp breath. 

“I brought something fun for the children to do,” Sayaka’s mother continued, pulling out sheets of traceable words, “See, this way they can learn the months of the year in English! Doesn’t that look interesting, Sayaka?”

Her daughter didn't look as if she agreed, but resigned herself to picking a pen.

“I’m sorry,” I began in as polite Japanese as I knew at the time, “But you want her to…write? The months of the year? In English? I thought she was four years old…”

“She is!” Her mother confirmed, elegantly stomping over my not-so-subtle complaint. 

Sayaka illustrated my point by struggling to uncap the purple ball-point pen. I reached over and did it for her. She smiled at me. 

“I want her to write,” her mother resolved and passed her a sheet that had ‘JANUARY’ printed on it, “Just to get a feel for the word, you see. And after she finishes, we can move onto the alphabet! What do you think?”

I was thinking a lot of things but didn’t articulate any of them. Jun (his mouth stained brown from chocolate) came back to sit with us. He grabbed the paper that had ‘FEBRUARY’ written on it and promptly began to vandalize it with another pen.

“Jun loves to draw,” Sayaka’s mother thankfully explained, because I would have never guessed otherwise. I took a deep breath and prayed that the evening would proceed smoothly. 

“Let’s write together, Sayaka chan!” I encouraged her with a smile and picked up my pen, “Come on, let’s write ‘J’! You know what ‘January’ is?”

From Sayaka's stare, you would have assumed that I was speaking to her in Ancient Greek. 

“Write the word,” her mother prompted in Japanese and she closed her fist around the pen and lifted it high into the air, looking more prepared for a knife fight than an English class. 

“This is ‘J’,” I explained and traced the top, “Come on, it’s your turn!”

“It’s your turn!” Her mother trilled in Japanese. It was starting to become slightly annoying. 

Sayaka turned to me with an emotion in her eyes I couldn’t quite read. She opened her mouth as if to say something profound…and then burst into tears.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed, “What’s wrong?”

“She’s tired after school,” her mother explained cheerfully as her daughter cried, “Don’t worry, this is quite normal.”

Sayaka kicked the sofa twice, tossed the pen down and pushed the paper away, all with tears running down her face. Jun blinked at her and then went back to his abstract masterpiece.

“Oh, Sayaka,” her mother sighed, “It’s all right. I’ll get you something to eat and then you can come back to learn.”

Sayaka, sobbing, was led out and I heard her mother place an order for ice cream. 

“Really?” I sighed, when I was sure that no one who understood English was within earshot. I surreptitiously checked my watch. One hour and fifty minutes left to go. I was pretty close to howling myself by then. Unfortunately, there was no adult who would cuddle and treat me to overpriced ice cream.

I let Jun color for a while and tried to sneak in an English conversation while he did but the master didn’t take kindly to being interrupted by a barbarian while working. He grunted a few times and after that, ignored me entirely.

“I have an idea!” Sayaka’s mother announced as she returned and I was beginning to actively fear that, “Since Jun loves to draw, why don’t we move on to maps?”

This sounded infinitely safer than forcing an illiterate four-year-old who couldn’t even hold a pen to write entire words, so I agreed and we coaxed his attention to an unlabeled, map of Asia.

“Do you know where our teacher is from?” She asked, pointing at the map, and then turned to me, “Can you say that in English, please?”

“Jun!” I cheered, “Do you know where I’m from? Can you guess?”

“She’s Indian!” Sayaka’s mother exclaimed, “Jun, do you know where India is? You should know, you love curry!”

Oh, please don't let them start on the curry, I implored the higher powers.

“Do you know where India is?” I repeated, prompted by her fervent nodding. 

He frowned at the map for a bit and then crashed his finger down on Saudi Arabia. I didn’t have the heart to correct him and wipe that huge smirk off his radiant face.

“Close,” I choked out, “That’s very close. Good job, Jun! Can you show me where you are from?”

“Nihon!” He shrieked and raised two pens in the air. 

“What’s that in English?” Sayaka’s mother demanded and then shot me a look.

“What’s that in English?” I echoed in said language. 

He blinked and shrugged.

“Ja-pan,” I enunciated, “Let’s say it together! Japan. Japan.”

“Ja-pan,” he complied, then took up a pen and started a new art project on the map. He too held the writing instrument like a dagger and nearly took a chunk out of the table underneath with the force he applied. 

“Do you know where Japan is?” I asked, “Come on, won’t you show it to me? Please, Jun? Please? Show me Japan? Japan?”

Jun sighed and decided that the quickest way to get me to shut up was to answer the question. He considered the map for a long while with a furrowed brow. Finally, he leaned down and drew a huge circle right around…China.

“Here!” He shouted. And went back to scribbling. 

I couldn’t speak for a good two seconds and stealing at look at Sayaka’s mother, I could see all the way to her molars.

“Jun, that’s not Japan!” I exclaimed and picked up a new pen, “Look! Here it is! It’s an eye-land! Can you say that with me? Island?”

Jun thoughtfully took in the tiny little pieces that made up the country of his birth, then sized up the impressive bulk of China’s landmass. His eyes flicked back to Japan and his mouth twisted.

I was the only person who wasn't surprised when he broke down weeping. Sayaka was brought back in and after Jun had sniffled to some semblance of serenity, I decided to continue with the Geography lesson. 

“Do you know who lives in Japan?" I asked the two and by the tone of my voice, you would have thought I was about to announce a celebrity.

“Nihonjin,” Sayaka provided, while Jun stared sadly at China. 

“Excellent, Sayaka!” I cried out, “That’s right! Let’s say it in English! Japanese people!”

“japanesepeople,” she chanted but Jun hadn’t quite made it through all five stages of grief yet, so I handed him a pen to cheer him up.

“Jun,” I said conspiratorially, “If Japanese people live in Japan, do you know…who lives in China?”

He stuck out his lip as he thought and then his face lit up as the answer hit.

“Monsters!” He declared as Sayaka’s mother and I both gasped. I shot a look at Jun’s mother sitting outside the class. She was nursing his infant brother and gave me a kind smile as she sipped her coffee. 

“No!” I protested, “The people who—oh, no, Jun!”

He’d gone back to circling China with the pen and stared up at me, eyes narrowed in defiance as he thickened the lines. 

“Japan,” he insisted, clearly daring me to say otherwise.

No!” I snapped and then repeated it in Japanese for good measure.

Sayaka’s mother tactfully wrestled his hand off the paper and gave me an apologetic look. 

“This is Tokyo,” I said, pointing at the city marked in Japan, “Do you know where Chiba is?”

Sayaka’s mother nudged her.

“Chiba is next to Tokyo, remember?” She asked, “You know where it is! Show the teacher!”

“Please show me, Sayaka?” I implored. Jun crossed his arms and sulked. 

“Ahhh,” Sayaka said delicately, leaning forward with a nervous look on her face, “Chiba….this?”

Her finger was on Kazakhstan. 

“That’s um, close,” I encouraged, “Very close! Don’t be sad! But that’s not Chiba.”

Her lip began to wobble and even her mother looked uneasy. The cafe’s ice creams were not cheap. 

“Do you know who lives here?” I amended and pointed at Kazakhstan. Disaster averted. 

“Demons!” Jun cackled and he was back to top form, “Dinosaurs! Monsters! Ghosts!”

Sayaka’s mother gave him a less than friendly look.

“Let’s move on to reading,” she suggested and confiscated the map, “Sayaka, Jun, say the alphabet.”

Jun had started to jog around the room again (courtesy of the ice cream) so I decided to let him work off his excess energy and concentrated on Sayaka. Her mother didn’t object to my strategy.

“A,” Sayaka whispered, “B,C,D,F,G,H,J,L,N,R,S,T,X,Z.”

I looked at her mother, wondering if I should intervene, and she nodded.

“Let’s sing it together,” I suggested as she started to play a recording of some ridiculously cheerful woman who was screaming the alphabet while accompanied by enthusiastic instrumentals, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G—oh, Sayaka, no, no, it’s all right, you don’t have to, please don't—”

She was led out again, shoulders shaking, and Jun flopped onto the couch and smiled at me. His face was completely pink.

“Shall we sing the letters together?” I asked with a shamelessly fake grin as the female voice screeched on behind me, “Jun, do you know A-B-C-D—?”

Matching my own smile, he shook his head. I switched the CD off because it was starting to give me a headache. No more letters. 

“Then let’s move onto reading,” I said brightly as Sayaka's mother handed me a workbook. I was coming around to my employer’s style of education. 

Sayaka came back with her eyes red, but thankfully without a second serving of ice cream. 

There was still an hour left in the lesson and Jun’s sugar rush steadied his attention enough to get him through it, while Sayaka decided that fatalism was more her thing: that maybe if she accepted what was happening and didn’t try to resist the torment, everything would end quicker and her mother might take her home and people would speak to her in words that she actually understood. 

The two of them managed to finish several math mazes and after much complaining and whining (on my part), I finally agreed to raise my voice by an octave and read the instructions in different animal sounds. Then, they moved on to sticking paper animals over felt sheets based on their habitat. Sayaka was reasonably good at this since the book was hers, but Jun insisted on putting his favorite cheetah cut-out on every single page, from tropical jungles to an icy tundra to the sea bed. 

Sayaka’s mother decided to end the lesson early when her daughter started to doze off and Jun abandoned us to make a pillow fort and hide inside it. 

“So, let’s discuss the contract,” she said wearily while I tried to keep from yawning. I was ready to fall over from exhaustion but when I checked my watch, it was barely six in the evening. 

“I’m interviewing other people for this position as well,” she explained, while I wondered if I had enough money on my train card to make a getaway on a limited express line, “So I’ll let you know the results by email. By the way, can I see your singing voice? I want their teacher to sing English lullabies and nursery rhymes for them.”

I stared at Sayaka’s mother, right into her enquiring brown eyes and that's when I had an epiphany.

I was here, in this too small room, wearing a color I detested, having smiled more in two hours than I usually did in two months, making an anxious girl and an imperialist boy do things that most children double their age hadn’t yet learned in English speaking countries, just because our world is in the throes of this ridiculous disease called Globalization where in order to be ‘well-traveled’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ you need to throw off liabilities like your native language and culture and learn to conform to a ‘standard’ accent and suck up to the so-called developed nations that had colonized most of the planet at one point of time. 

And in the midst of my struggle to resist, I’d somehow been turned around by unseen forces to rush instead at the losing side. 

I froze my smile in place a little longer, cleared my throat, and sang for a bit. Sayaka’s little mouth widened in wonder, her mother nodded meditatively with her eyes closed and even Jun raised the roof of his retreat to blink at me.

“Well,” she breathed at last and studied me for a few moments, as if trying to figure out what was going on in my mind, “I’ll be in touch. Can you write a message for the two of them, please? They’ll read it at home and keep it as a souvenir.”

I took the offered card and after a few moments of thinking, wrote from the heart. I wanted to tell Sayaka that she was one of the most polite, sensitive and affectionate children I’d ever met and that with her patience and intelligence, I knew she would become a success. I just hoped she would be happy and learn to go easier on herself. I wanted to tell Jun that he was friendly, cheerful and full of energy and that he would definitely rise high. I also wanted to let him know that his stubbornness was a good thing, but only when he used it to protect himself from the demands of the unreasonable world and not to push his beliefs on others. 

In the end, I stuck to a simple message of praise and encouragement. After bidding them all goodnight and bowing several million times, I vanished into the winter night. After getting home, I slept for a straight fourteen hours. 

Two days later, I received an email from Sayaka’s mother.

In summary, she had interviewed other applicants for the teaching job but decided that the children and I had the best compatibility (although her tone as she admitted this was rather begrudging). She wanted me to return the following week to begin paid lessons. However, she admitted that she felt I still lacked adequate experience in child care, so she would keep me at a reduced wage for a few months until I was more proficient. 

As you may expect, I sent a politely worded response and never saw Sayaka or Jun again. 

The experience drained me in a way I never realized was possible and after taking to other classmates and seniors who had taught children before, I settled on the theory that children gain their inexhaustible reserves of energy only by siphoning off our own, like extra cute vampires. 

“You should have taken the job,” someone rebuked me, “Even at reduced pay, that was a good deal.”

I shrugged and kept my thoughts to myself, but really, I didn’t want to be complicit in the destruction of Sayaka and Jun’s childhood, even if the salary was good. 

Even now I’m not sure how to feel about Japan’s craze with the English language. From my perspective, it seems to be working in extremes, with haircuts, hospital visits and filing official documents being next to impossible even in Tokyo without native level proficiency of Japanese, while international teachers are imported and shipped off to remote corners of the country to teach little children how to introduce themselves in ‘standard accent’ English. 

Someday in the near future, Sayaka and Jun will probably be affluent and highly educated adults; so much more intellectual, sophisticated (and stylish) than I could ever dream of becoming. 

That’s fine with me. 

I just hope they’ll be happy. 

Photo Credit:

Cover image: philwarren <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/31772007100">Smiling Students</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

Image 1:  mhobl <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/33662100756">bonne chance</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/">(license)</a>

Image 2: Tambako the Jaguar <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/33174884995">Pablo in a funny position</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/">(license)</a>