Teaching In Socks

Fifty-Four Forty or Fight
February 25, 2009, 5:17 pm
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As swiftly as it was brought into action “The Apple Pie Bold as Love: American Culinary Experience” has been suspended until further notice.  The date the organizers had originally requested fell on a weekend that I will be out town and the date we initially compromised on happened to present a scheduling conflict to the cultural society.

I am both bummed and relieved. One on hand, I was really looking forward from the inevitable farce that would arise. While I’m sure it would have been injury free, (I got over my kitchen-fire phase in college) I think we can safely assume that me teaching a cooking class on two weeks notice to forty women with immensely more culinary experience than I had was worth at least one appearance on This American Life. At the very least, some dreadfully awful apple pies would have been concocted (let”s face it, that should read “attempted” –concocted assumes I get that far).

The organizers mentioned they would like to reschedule sometime in June or July. This gives me plenty of time to not practice pie-making in the oven I don’t have. So, the opportunity for disaster is not entirely lost.

Pie catastrophes aside, what I found most interesting was the process by which local cultural office informed me of the postponement. Specifically, I experienced my first serious, social, Japanese apology. while it was unnecessary, I did find it to be a noteworthy experience.

The organizer, who I met last week, dropped by yesterday with his English speaking colleague. Unfortunately, I was in class, so they left a message with my manager, that the even wasn’t going to work. They then returned today just to apologize to me personally for the misunderstanding.

I found this to be quite polite, but again, not necessary; scheduling conflicts happen, I am aware of this was certainly not insulted. However, they took the matter intensely serious; if you had observed this interaction on mute, and only seen their faces, you would have deduced that they were explaining to me in detail  and with great remorse that my dog  had died an agonizing and gruesome death. The man from last week was sweating profusely, he slouched in his chair as if weighted down by shame. His colleague, spoke English fluently, but still he chose his words diligently and in a slow, deliberate pace, apologizing, on my count at least six different times during a five-minute conversation–at least two of which were apologies for hypothetical things, that in case I had started working on they were sorry for.

As  I thanked them for their apology while reassuring them that it wasn’t necessary, the obvious revelation–that western culture could use a dose of this behavoir–hit me. It felt nice to get an overdone apology. Well maybe it was the apology, or maybe I was just feeling better because in the midst of this planning we cleared up any confusion there may have been about me being a Canadian. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.

baby steps/blame Canada
February 19, 2009, 4:30 pm
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Let me begin by explaining that the default personnel set up for my English school is this: one native English speaking teacher (me), one Japanese English speaking teacher, and one manager–to work on recruiting new students, and renewing students contracts and making sure the school is profitable.

Managers are always Japanese, and apparently it is rare that they stay at a particular school for very long. If they are successful, they get moved to bigger schools, and if they aren’t well…  When I first arrived, the default personnel scenario was in place. But within two months the manager was asked to move to another school (not because she was successful) and never heard from again. Sans manager, the other teacher and I were forced to pick up some slack– and in terms of dealing with students this meant the other teacher had to pick up more slack because out of the two of us she was the only one who spoke Japanese. Then in December, we got another Manager, who was capable and successful.

Unfortunately, after two months, the powers that be, recognized her talents and transferred her to another school three days a week.  Also, those same three days a week, the moved the other teacher to another school because she didn’t ave many students here. Thus creating a new, reformed  power hierarchy at my school that consists of just me, alone, by myself.  This essentially means that I am running someone else’s business in a country where I don’t speak the language.

As you can imagine, on occasion, this is ripe for farce.

Thus, in between faxing some forms (usually the manager’s job) and frantically trying to prepare for my class (my job), I was greeted by a visitor from the city office (I was stoked I could understand that much!). He was a wonderfully nice gentleman, who, happened to be friends with one of my students. He also knew less English then I knew Japanese.

He came armed with a series of pamphlets written Japanese, He explained each one, in Japanese pointing pictures of old people cooking and young Australian and Japanese children making arts and crafts together. It became apparent to me that he was in charge of some cultural exchange program, but beyond that I understood little of what he said.

This was a bit depressing; I have now been living in Japan for seven months, and have been taking private Japanese lessons. I study hard and try to speak when I can, but progress is slow, frustratingly slow.  Every Japanese person I try to speak with is always patient and really understanding, and I try to be patient with myself as well, but I’ve encountered few things as difficult as trying to have a productive conversation with someone when we don’t understand each other”s language. It’s like playing the worst game Pictionary or Charades every three seconds, except you don’t even resort to such games because you end up drawing an entire stick-figure conversation or imitating Riverdance.

As soon as he moved away from the explanation of the pamphlets and into free form conversation the structural integrity of our conversation collapsed.  The thick blanket of the linguistic impasse swiftly covered the room. I could see drops of sweat forming on his forehead as I tried to faun understanding to make him less nervous as he tried sentences in both quick Japanese and bits of broken English.

We got to a final sentence with only two words I understood, “Canada”  and “food”. I asked him to repeat the sentence, but I was still to grasp those two words. Realizing we had hit the cul de sac of this conversation I panicked and I did what I usually do in these situations and said “yes”.

Now I  know from a specific Seinfeld episode that this is a bad habit to have, but in situations of international exchange, I have the propensity to panic (I would make a terrible diplomat).

After I said, “hai”, he shot me a look that I briefly interpreted as meaning he understood that I did understand, or that I had just agreed to something.

Did he want me to tell him some Canadian foods? Were they going to make some Canadian foods and did he want me to come? Did he want ME to teach people how to make Canadian food and more importantly did he think I was Canadian?

After he repeated the question again for my benefit, I sucked in my pride and told him that the manager would be back on Friday and she could help translate. We exchanged formalities, he unnecessarily apologized for stopping in unannounced and he promised to come back on Friday. Afterwards, I thought about Canadian foods my list consist of this: Canadian Bacon, Poutine (gross) and some form of Canadian Syrup, also, maybe Ketchup flavored chips (does that count?).

Later my student, the who was an acquaintance of his, came to class and I asked him what his friend had requested. My student clarified everything, saying he wanted me to to either give a speech about Canada or teach peopel how to cook some Canadian foods. I replied to my student, who is very fluent in English, that I would be happy to do that, but I’m not Canadian. He blinked a few times, tilted his head–much in the way a canine does when it’s confused and said, “really?”.

depressing things: 2, Ted: 0 (maybe I get a half point for sucking in my pride instead of insisting that I would agree to teach a Canadian cooking class).

Also, I’ll find out tomorrow if the offer still stand to teach a ethnic American cooking class. If so what should I cook for the class, tacos or pizza?