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The Hammering Heart

Still beating.

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December 2009

Scolding with Specificity, Authority

One of the inevitable problems of teaching English to people who don’t speak it already is that it’s hard to scold them with any amount of specificity. Thursday is the day when I have lots of shithead students. Five and a half shitheads, to be precise. The half-shithead is Masanori, who was a decent–though oddly quiet–boy who has lately been altering his own personality to fit in better with his shithead peers. Soon he will be a bonafide pure-breed with a gigantic soft-serve swirl of the Brown Badness resting atop his neck. I give him another two months.

Last Thursday, after a tiff about nothing at all with my girlfriend, I went to work in a less than jolly mood, which is no kind of mood to be in when Christmas is around the corner and you’ve got decorations to make. Also, my first class on Thursday is a small flock of zany kindergarten children, all of them shaped like potatoes. They aren’t shitheads, but some of them have shithead moms who think it’s okay to drop their kids off half an hour in advance so they can get back to applying product after product to their devastated horse-hair (which sits on top of the shit, of course) that much faster. But you don’t want to disappoint those potato children since they’re Thursday’s saving grace. So I faked a happy face for awhile until I was actually happy, because the upside of working with kids is that the good ones will take your mind off everything else.

Then the second class rolled around. Enter the first two shitheads. Since Christmas is coming and we were making decorations today, I told them up front that if we just get through the first twenty minutes of lesson, we can spend the rest of the time doing fun Christmasty stuff and they won’t get any homework or anything. But lo and behold, being shitheads, this was too much for them. Without going into too much pointless detail, the class progressed like a nightmare and ended with me gritting my teeth. The downside of teaching English at a cram school is that it’s an extra class at an extra school and the parents are paying money for it, so if the kids aren’t enjoying it the parents just pull the kids out to save the money, and then it’s our ass. That, and, for some reason there’s a sort of double-standard for the English classes where they have to be both educational and “fun”, whereas the cram school’s main unit (we are a somewhat autonomous branch) actually prides itself on the motto, “Strict but Understandable” and the teachers can be heard screaming at their students from outside the building. As an English teacher, you can really only scold a kid to the extent that he himself thinks he deserves, otherwise he’ll bitch to his bitch mom and she’ll bitch to my boss who is actually not a bitch at all but who still bends to the formalities of Japanese society. Here’s how that conversation would go:

Shithead mom: “You said learning English was fun, and now my Hiroshi tells me Greg-sensei yelled at him for being a shithead?”
Boss: “Oh my, I’ll have Greg apologize to you right away. Please take this free gift as a sign of our deepest regret for trying to run a class instead of a funhouse for spoiled shits.”
Shithead mom: “Not good enough. I want that Jew deported.”

The second class shitheads are bad, but they’re still pretty young, so they’re only bad in a Calvin & Hobbes or Dennis the Menace kind of way, like you know, I’ll be saying something like “Okay everybody, M says M-M-Monkey!” and they’ll be jumping out of their seats and talking over me. “This is boring! I wanna play the game where we throw wads of wet tissues at the board and don’t speak any English!” All of their problems are born out of selfishness and can generally be culled with candy or the promise of candy to come.

The third class shitheads, on the other hand, are at that tender age just before middle school where it becomes in vogue to actively seek out and destroy other human beings through unprovoked barrages of verbal degradation. In the classroom environment at this age, there is never just one shithead and a bunch of normal kids; there are the Shitheads (the majority) and the Targets (the minority). In this class’s case, the Target is one Kôtarô, an athletic, always cheerful boy who proves to us all that ignorance is bliss. Clearly he has a mild learning disability that affects foremost his ability to “read the proverbial air” (I wrote about that a long time ago) but still allows him to study English in the same class as the shitheads. Accordingly, it wasn’t long before Arts and Crafts Day had become Have Loud and Obnoxious Conversations in Japanese While Bashing Kôtarô’s Soul into Oblivion Day.

I always found it fascinating (revolting) how people, when desperate to look cool, will mindlessly do whatever they’re told, as long as the number of people doing the telling is equal to or greater than the number of those desperate. This is why students won’t listen to me when I tell them to study, but they will listen to a group of ten-year-olds who claim you’re not hip unless you be listening to thinly disguised Christian rock and gambling with cardboard milk caps featuring pictures of the muppet babies, to use the example set by my own generation. The fact that what’s hip changes so drastically and so dependably is a phenomenon that’s just as fascinating. In this particular case, I mean in my third Thursday class, we had a group of video gamers yammering openly about how many hours they had put into inane fetch quests in what games. When Kôtarô, a boy who prefers baseball and track and field, admitted to not owning a Wii, the other students treated him like a heretic. I know I’m the last person who should be saying this, but what is the world coming to when you’ve got gaming nerds bullying slow-witted jocks? This is oddly upsetting to me. I always imagined that if I lived in a world where I was respected by my peers, I wouldn’t let it get to my head, but here we have a group of geeks who, by some twist of fate, have become socially accepted, and have subsequently proven themselves no more righteous than the jocks who would’ve abused them in another time and place. And ultimately, a geek with a cold heart is essentially just human garbage. Quote me if you must.

It’s amazing how some things change entirely while others don’t change in the slightest. I’m just waiting for the day when Kôtarô realizes he’s physically stronger than the lot of them and all they need is a good backfist to end the madness. But technically it’s probably against the rules for me to tell him.

There’s a wall in my mind and in the minds of most adults, standing between cool-headed perception and white hot judgment. It’s a wall whose bricks are sulpted from the Benefit of the Doubt and cemented together with the mortar of Denial. It’s a wall that, on rare occasion, needs to have a giant hole bashed into it with a sledgehammer. After a whole hour of listening to my students’ unwarranted abuse of a good kid, coupled with the intense, perfected brand of materialistic discussion only produceable by the priviliged and pre-adolescent, I could feel those bricks start tumbling down. But therein lay a challenge. How do you yell at shitheads who don’t understand English? I could’ve used my top secret Japanese powers, but how convincing can a foreigner really be when he’s not speaking his own words, regardless of how much homework he’s done? Ever seen Jackie Chan yell at someone in one of his Hollywood movies? Ever not laughed at it? And he’s essentially a living weapon. You’ve got to use your own words. Especially when in theory, these kids are supposed to understand some English. The problem is trying to say it simply enough that they know why they’re in trouble (whether its feigned ignorance or the real thing, kids in trouble will always look surprised) while still sounding angry.

In the end, they definitely knew I was angry because it was pretty much the first time I’ve ever genuinely been angry at that class. Not sure how well they got my point though. It went something like this:

Kensuke (dare I say, the LEAD shithead?): Candy, please! (normally we reward students with candy at the end of class)

Me: Why in the hell would I give you candy?

Shitheads: (Shitheads gather) Candy, please!

Me: No! Because you’re bad students.

Shitheads: (Grow silent)

Me: How do you act to Kôtarô? Are you nice? No. You’re shit.

Shitheads: (Sheepishly divert eye contact)

Me: You. Change. Today.

Shitheads: (Half-heartedly nod)

Me: That’s a promise. (Make each of them do the pinky promise thing)

Not the coolest way to tell someone off, but looking cool and teaching ESL to kids never really mixed to begin with. Hence, this. Also I think they understood it too, because afterwards my assistant translated everything. Heh.

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Well, it’s all up to the gods now. I think I might’ve passed, but I also think I might’ve not passed.

Highlights:

-The proctor, as was the case in 2007, sucked. She was generally unfriendly throughout, wore a mask on her face so that everything she said was constantly being drowned out by the creaks and cracks of people’s chairs and desks. Also, during the reading segment, which is the longest and hardest, and requires the most concentration, she announced that we had a remaining five minutes of test time when in reality we still had about an hour and twenty minutes. The blanket of shock she managed to cast over the entire classroom broke my concentration and probably everyone else’s, for at least a solid minute or two. I don’t understand how you could screw that job up. All you have to do is read instructions, look at the time, and pass out and collect people’s shit. She managed to fail at all of these (she actually missed collecting some people’s answer keys until they called after her to stop, and when one person dropped their test voucher, she picked it up, looked at the mug shot of the person on it, and still managed to hand it to the wrong person). I thought that with help this terrible, it must’ve been a volunteer gig, but Yoko was quick to point out that these test proctors get paid really well–probably around $20 an hour.

-Also, the final question of the listening section was an homage to Neon Genesis Evangelion, the anime. They were like “We’re being attacked by an unknown lifeform! Launch Unit 00!” “We can’t! Our pilot’s been…” “I’ll go.” “Captain, you?! But…” “I must…” “Leave it to me!” “ASUKA?! No! You can’t!” “She’s . . .gone.” Well, something like that anyway. Pretty ridiculous, but I was impressed that they managed to keep the listening section pretty interesting throughout. There was another one about child psychology, and one about two people’s interpretations of modern art.

-There was one other white guy taking the test in my room, and probably about two other ones total. The rest of the people looked Chinese with smatterings of Koreans here and there. I guess that explains why the study books never have English instructions even though they’ve got Chinese and Korean.

All in all, I think I did considerably better than I did two years ago, and there were probably about ten times when I thought to myself, “Thank god I studied hard this year and crammed yesterday” because there were things I definitely would’ve gotten wrong if I hadn’t. I think that final day of cramming saved me more than a few times. Of course now it feels like the weekend should be starting, not ending.

JLPT Level 1

Tomorrow (Sunday) is the day I take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test: Level 1, three rigorous hours of bubble filling madness. I’ve been cramming all day and studying semi-regularly since the beginning of the year. If I don’t pass it this time, I’ll just have to take it again in June, but I’ll also be supremely disappointed. Then again, Level 1 is pretty damn serious. I’ve stumped native speakers with my study questions.

Anyway, keep your fingers crossed for me! Of course you’ll probably be sleeping at the time and wake up with horrible finger cramps, but that just makes me all the more thankful.

English Atrocities: Wa-sei Eigo and the Legendary Unintelligible Abbrev.

Those with a mazakon may be shocked and humiliated to find that it is a word which well describes them, when it is eventually pointed out that the word is a grotesque mutation of the phrase “mother complex”. The good news is that a “mother complex” in Japanese is not the same thing as an Oedipal complex, and is merely a hip way of calling someone a “mama’s boy” (they are kind of different, right?). As such, it is classified as slang and often overused by the slanghappy, to the point that the mere mention of one’s mother in a neutral to positive light may result in one being labeled a mazakon, which, incidentally, is used as a noun identifying the person directly, not as a thing that person has. Example!

Ferdy: It’s Mother’s Day this Sunday so I thought I’d give my mum a call.
Hiroki-san: Geez, Ferdy, I didn’t realize you were a Mother Complex.
Ferdy: I’m a homo sapien.

Mazakon, or mazaa konpurekusu as it’s officially known, is also classified as Wa-sei Eigo, which means “English Manufactured in Japan”. The Japanese should stop manufacturing English. It’s a strange practice, and when you think about it, a little bit creepy. The Americans have dabbled in similar practices in the past, using the scraps of other languages to forge horrid non-words like “Croissandwich” and “Guac”, and even whole sentences like “Guac croissandwich, duderino?”, but such practices have generally been restricted to the corporate food world, where just about anything, no matter how filthy or disgusting, goes. In Japan, meanwhile, the spontaneous generation of pseudo-English atrocities is a phenomenon which occurs constantly, in our schools and Shintô shrines, on buses and in back alleys. I’ve had friends attempt it and then report back to me. “Hey, here’s a little Japan-Manufactured English I made up the other day. Wanna see if it activates your gag reflex there, Greggie?” “No testing phase necessary, buddy, go ahead and slap a price sticker on that one!” In the pursuit of self-expression, what is it that possesses a person to just jumble up foreign words into a nonsensical phrase when the option to use real words that actually exist is so glaringly present?

Well, you’ll find no answers within this blog; only layer after oniony layer of doubt. One thing that’s clear, however, is that these Japanese-Manufactured English expressions are produced with no intention of being used to communicate with people who speak real English. As such, the Japanese are free to abbreviate these words and phrases to the point of complete disfigurement, so that one would have no chance of figuring out what English word they originally came from. You see, the fact is that when an English (or whatever) word is transliterated into the Japanese katakana syllabary, it effectively takes twice as long to say because every consonant must be coupled with a vowel. Hence a simple word like is becomes izu when transliterated into katakana. Consequently, a phrase which would be semi-long in English becomes horrendously long in Japanese. People can’t be canceling meetings and dentists’ appointments left and right to make time for phrases like “mazaa konpurekusu” or “waado purosessa (word processor)”, but they also insist that such phrases must be spewed out as frequently as possible. The solution is to abbreviate these katakanafied words into briefer katakanafied words, so that the final product has no resemblance to the original root, not unlike the man whose face is permanently mutilated in a bike accident after a split-second’s poor decision. And thus, the mazakon. Thus, the pasokon (personal computer). Thus, the eakon (air conditioner). Thus, the rimokon (remote control). Thus, the gô-kon (a Japanese-English compound word for added blasphemy, meaning a sort of group date, coming from the kanji 合 (to meet) and the English word company). The same kon is an abbreviation for “complex,” “computer,” “conditioner,” “controller,” and “company”.

The cost of this continued horror insofar as it concerns your faithful writer is a multiple generation-spanning tendency of the Japanese to believe these words will somehow be easier for a person like me to understand, sometimes even choosing them over more accurate English. “I was on my PC the other day,” they might start. “Oh, by which I mean my pasokon, Greg, sorry. I know how confusing those abbreviations must be for you, so there’s the full English word there. Pasokon.” If they weren’t so damn well-meaning I’d be stamping “Don’t Tread on Me” on people’s faces left and right, but as it stands, I just feel like they ought to cut out all the fake English and make things a lot less complicated. Or to use the Japanese English, a lot less kon.

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