Monday, May 24, 2010

“Just like a Foreigner.”

At both schools I’ve worked at, I’ve used the New Horizon textbook. It’s probably not the worst language book in the world, but there are a handful of things I’d have done differently. The writers probably don’t realize how many little things can explode in the actual classroom.

For example, the story about a little girl comforting a little boy as they both are dying outside Hiroshima. I thought it was sad but sweet the first time I read it – before a certain teacher started interrogating me several classes a week to get the proper remorseful response: What did I think about the story? How were American students taught about the Bombing? Were they as guilty as they should be? No matter how I put it, she would then turn to the students and translate it as, “In America, they barely learn about the Bomb. They all think it was a good thing.”

Or another chapter about Okinawa, barely hints at the war, but she had to print out an extra essay on the topic. And again, interrogate me on it – which cut even closer to home as my grandfather was there, not that I was about to tell her that.

I had affectionately dubbed her Crazy-sensei. At my new school, there is another I am keeping a cautious eye, K-sensei, hoping he doesn’t become Krazy-sensei. There’s this seemingly innocuous exchange in the book:

Shin: Where were you? I was waiting for you at the station.

Mike: I was in the library, reading a book.

Shin: Well, come on!

I didn’t think anything about it. Now I’m wondering why it couldn’t have been between Shin and Aya, or Mike and Judy. When we finish reading it, K-sensei says, ”Mike is so rude for keeping Shin waiting. That’s just like a foreigner, they have no consideration for other people.”

I have three classes with him. Maybe if he had just said it casually in one I would have disregarded it as the usual nonsense. But he said “typical foreigner” in all three classes, and in the third he said it several times, and kept going as though he thought he was a night-club comedian. I must have had some sort of horrified “I can’t believe he’s so tactless” expression on my face, because the kids turned and stared at me in fascination, wondering if they were going to see the infamous American temper explode before them. Noticing them noticing me, he finally asked my opinion. Actually, I’m not sure exactly what he said over the roaring in my head - “Don’t you agree?” or “Should I not have said that?” but I responded between gritted teeth. “Aren’t Japanese people the same?”

“Oh, I made her angry. It’s just a joke, a joke!”

I smiled “a bitter smile” as they say, and let him know then and after the class that I knew it was a joke, that I didn’t think it was funny. That I wasn’t insulted on my own behalf but I didn’t think it was appropriate as a sensei, as a “third parent,” and a role model at the very least, to be fostering poor stereotypes of other cultures in the minds of our students. I’m not sure he quite understood, but he was embarrassed enough to at least think twice about it. He was even more so when it turned out that the students wrote in their class notebook “ALT got mad at K-sensei today” and their homeroom teacher read it and told everyone.

Perhaps if it had been one of the other teachers I wouldn’t have flared up, but K-sensei himself is often late, almost always slips into the classroom just as the chime rings, and – in the classes he’s meant to be team-teaching with one of the others – usually doesn’t show up at all, or not for more than a couple of minutes. I may not have much going for me, I’m not an especially enthusiastic or intelligent teacher, but I am punctual.

We had an English department meeting the next day, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “So Emily got mad at me yesterday.” The older female teacher who sits next to me later asked if he’d said something sexually harassing. (I scoffed at the very idea). I explained the situation, and I think she got it better than perhaps K-sensei had. It’s unfortunate if I get a reputation for having a bad temper, but I’m also a little pleased that I did stand up for “Mike” and other foreigners like us.

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