I interviewed to teach English in Japan in a sunny office building in downtown LA, naively believing that Japan needed someone with my unique skill-set and stunning good looks. But then I’m the kind of dude who watches late-night infomercials and buys a Ginsu knife set, so I guess that shows how discriminating I am. Actually, they worked pretty well, and for $19.99, how can you go wrong? I’m such a sucker for a bargain. Anyway, sitting in that conference room, drinking green tea and listening to the recruiter explain the job, I assumed that Japan didn’t have enough English teachers. Turns out I was wrong.
Just as well, since I find being right all the time to be interminably boring. I like to mix things up once in a while, just to keep life interesting.
Perhaps it was my over-sized American suit or freshly-minted TESL certificate, but somehow I fooled the interviewer into believing I was a person of character and responsibility, and the company sent my ass to Japan to teach in an eikaiwa. So apparently anybody can be wrong. And I’d been here for almost six months before a coworker told me the real deal. I was secretly hoping to sleep with her, so I’d invited her out to this post war-era restaurant and ordered a pile of beers, some shiitake mushrooms, and deep-fried skewers of octopus. They taste way better than they sound, since Japan does this thing with batter that’s akin to witchcraft. That really locks in the juices, no lie.
“You guys have it great, you know,” she said.
“Howzzat?” I said with half a skewer hanging out of my mouth.
“Your apartment is subsidized, right?
“Yeah partly,” I said. “Isn’t yours?
“Uh-uh, and I don’t make half of what you do,” she replied, and downed the remainder of her beer in one enormous gulp.
“You’re crazy,” I said, and proceeded to order a couple of glasses of white wine. The plan was proceeding quite well, I must say.
The two Kinds of English Teachers
In our eikaiwa, four of the teachers were—ah, how to explain this?—I guess what you’d call “foreigners.” And eight other teachers weren’t. They were “Japanese.” That seems like a pretty clear distinction, but really it’s not, since a couple of the “Japanese” English teachers had been raised in the U.S., including my date for the evening, one of the “foreign” teachers had been in Japan for half his life, and another “foreigner” was American-Japanese.
“So wait,” I said, with a mouthful of octopus and wine, “why do you make less? We do the same job.” I like Japan because you can talk with your mouth full.
“Because I’m Japanese,” she said.
“I thought you grew up in Hawaii?” I said. “You’re as American as me.”
“I lived there till I was sixteen,” she said, “but then we moved back to Japan.
“Yeah, but why do you make less?”
“Wrong color passport,” she said. This seemed to bum her out, and I decided to pursue a different line of conversation: sports. Always a good tack. Didn’t rescue the situation though, I’m sorry to report. Must’ve been all the wine. Gotta remember to stick with beer in such cases.
English Teachers are a yen a Dozen
But where was I? Oh yeah, English teachers. The truth is, even way out in the Japanese countryside, you can’t swing a tanuki without knocking a couple over. There’s a lot, is what I mean. They just happen to be Japanese. So one of Japan’s great mysteries is, why bother importing foreign English teachers if Japanese folks can already do the job for less money? Let me just take a moment to personally thank whoever brainwashed the Japanese nation into believing the following three lies:
1. Foreigners know English better
2. Foreigners have a better accent
3. Foreigners have interesting cultural knowledge
Actually, nobody believes number one, since all Japanese English teachers study grammar and pass rigorous certification tests that would fry most foreigners. My own grammar knowledge is limited to vague memories of sleeping through 9th grade English class and what I picked watching “Conjunction Junction.” Like the other day I was teaching in a Junior High, and the Japanese English teacher suddenly turns to me in the middle of class and asks, “Is ‘danger’ a noun?”
I was like, what the eff? “Danger?” A noun? What the hell’s a noun? All the kids are staring at me and I’m going, person-place-or-thing . . . person-place-or-thing . . .
“It’s more of like a concept,” I said. Whew, that was a close one.
Check out me Amazing Accent
So then there’s the pronunciation thing. Now maybe in some Oz-like world all Japanese people speak with Charlie Chan accents and foreigners all sound like they were raised in the Kansas cornfields, but the reality is way different. Quite a few Japanese English teachers have great pronunciation, even ones who’ve never lived abroad. Guess they watch a lot of “Sex and the City.” And the foreigners . . . well, I’ve met “native English speakers” from India, the Philippines, China, the Ukraine, Texas, all kinds of places with wacky accents. And you ever heard an English guy? I don’t know what language that is, but Blimey, it sounds bloody awful! Somebody seriously needs to send those guys to an American study-abroad program.
The fact is, pretty much any-damn-body can make good money as a “native English teacher” in Japan . . . so long as they’re not Japanese.
Now, I don’t disagree that for mid- to advanced learners, having an honest-to-God person from abroad can be a good thing, assuming he or she actually has something like teaching experience and wasn’t just waiting tables back in Kansas City. Okay, maybe that’s asking a bit much. Still, that’s hardly what’s at the root of this fixation with “native speakers.”
Which brings us to number 3, “Your culture,” also known as “Cool, a white guy.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the elementary school system.
Teaching in Japanese Public Schools
After my stint at the eikaiwa and a couple dozen other gigs, I started teaching in the public school system, where, throughout Japan, thousands of foreign English teachers (ALTs and JETs) instruct complicated topics such as Names of Fruits, Days of the Week, Zoo Animals, and Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. And alongside of them, Japanese English teachers, teaching the exact same things, for far less money. The English ability required to do such a job is virtually zero, which begs the question: Yo, why all the white people?
Not that I’m complaining, since it gives me a job with plenty of time to perfect my Japanese. Like last week, I worked at a grade school. Outside it was pouring rain, and I was walking down the school corridor with the Japanese English teacher, Ms. Kuroda. The windows were all foggy with condensation.
“Sure is raining,” she said in English.
“It’s monsoon season,” I said in Japanese, which I like to do just to keep her on her toes, “but our crops need it, so that’s good.”
Then we passed a group of students. They all bowed and said “konnichiwa” to Kuroda Sensei, then started waving madly at me and shouting “hello!”
“Do you ever think it’s strange that they don’t say ‘hello’ to you?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You know, you’re an English teacher, after all.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m Japanese.”
Hmmm, I thought.
“Hmmm,” I said.
Don’t Speak Japanese at School
All Japanese children learn through the school system that when they see an Asian face, they should use Japanese. And when they see my white face, they’re supposed to speak English. That’s just common sense. While “Japanese” English teachers can use Japanese, Rule #1 for “foreign” English teachers is “No speaking Japanese.” I mean, you start doing that and somebody’s likely to mistake you for a regular person, which is crazy. Then it’s just a slippery slope towards equality, and nobody wants that.
Of course children learn a lot of other good things at school too, like it’s okay to flash-mob your foreign teacher and ride him like the pony he is. They reach out to feel my hairy arms during class, unexpectedly grab my junk, and stick their fingers in my butt. They respect me so much, they can barely contain themselves. At the end of the class, they line up to give me high fives.
“Yeah, I don’t do that,” I say. No way Ken Seeroi’s coming in physical contact with 400 children a day. Eighty percent have snot on their hands, and the remainder have my butt on their fingers. I’d be dead of the plague within a month.
“Why not, Ken?” asked this little boy named Mr. Maeda.
“It’s Seeroi-Sensei, remember?” I said.
“Kevin-Sensei always gives us high fives,” said a small girl named Ms. Iwata.
“Yeah, I don’t know who that is,” I said, “but do you high-five Ms. Kuroda?”
“No,” they laughed, “She’s Japanese.”
It took me a while to figure it out, but it finally dawned on me why white people have been brought to Japan. Kuroda-Sensei helped me understand it.
“Just play some games,” she said. “The kids just want to have fun with Ken-Sensei.
“Yeah, I know I’m fun and magical and all that, but I don’t suppose I could just teach English class?
“They really want to hear some funny stories about your culture,” said Ms. Kuroda.
“Well, last time I did tell them Americans all ride zebras and wear meat hats. So are you telling them about the years you spent herding kangaroos in Australia, or just doing a regular English class?
“Just a regular class. But then . . . we’re different.
“I know, your English is better than mine. But we’re still both English teachers, and we both live in Japan. So what’s the difference?
“Well, you know,” she said, “you’ve got different . . . blood.”
One of These Things is not Like the Other
Oh, check and mate. There’s no arguing with science. So the truth is that nobody actually flew me to Japan to teach Seasons of the Year or how to pronounce “broccoli.” They just wanted the chance to touch the hairy arms of a real, live foreigner, to see how high his nose was, and to marvel at his use of chopsticks. I guess if that’s “cultural exchange,” then hey I’m cool with it. It’s like busing, only for teachers, not students. And without it, there’d be a few thousand white and black and miscellaneous Asian “English teachers” out of a job.
At the same time, it seems a little uninspired to prime people to look for differences rather than commonalities. By the time they leave elementary school, the kids have all read the textbooks showing that French people wear berets and Africans greet each other by saying “Jambo.” School’s prepared them to say “hello” when they meet white people, serve them coffee instead of tea, and hand them the English menu. They’re a different race, so why would you treat them the same? Stop with that crazy talk, already.
Japanese School Lunch
So after I finished a class in which I told everyone that Americans fly to work using umbrellas constructed of one hundred hot dogs, the Principal asked me to eat lunch with the kids. “They’re excited to learn more about your culture,” he explained. Ms. Kuroda stayed and ate in the staff room. Then while the kids and I were eating our bean stew and I was telling them all about how I invented the Beer Helmet and Giant Foam Finger, little Mr. Maeda tugged on my arm hair and whispered in sad Japanese, “Will you go home today, Ken?”
“Of course I’ll go home,” I said. And then little Mr. Maeda started crying.
“Whoa, easy with the waterworks,” I said. “Hey there, it’s okay, Seeroi-Sensei will be back tomorrow.”
“But I don’t know him, and you’re going to America,” he sobbed.
“No, silly,” I said, “I live in Japan.”
And then little Mr. Maeda looked very confused and even sadder, as though just I’d told him that Santa was merely some dude in a red suit. “Japan?” he said, and kept on crying, while outside it looked as though the rain would never end. Sure enough, going home in the middle of the monsoon was going to be gnarly. I was glad I didn’t have to ride the train all the way to America, though I sure wished I’d remembered my meat hat and hundred hot dog umbrella.