Teaching In Socks

Smiles are free

Usually when you find a video about Japan on an English speaking website it’s either about robots, or something intensely bizarre–like a game show for cartoon rabbits. This, year I have seen everything from robot chairs, to rocket chairs, to a cat who had been designated the Honorary Station Master  of a train station in Northern Japan.

I found the above video on the AP web channel and I liked it because while it was remotely insane, the story also presented two interesting social dynamics I have noticed during my time here.

The first and more obvious point of cultural significance documented is the immense value workers in the Japanese service industry put on giving good service, and the effort they put in to achieving that goal (as long as you don’t try to order off the menu). I can’t say I’m a person who even really appreciates good service. In retail situations I try to avoid the sales person for fear of being pressured into buying  leather pants or disappointing them when I don’t buy the leather pants they recommend.

Still, the disparity in the level of service you receive in Japan, versus an average American experience is not only blaring obvious, but also it is often delivered in a way that isn’t overwhelming or distracting. For example,  when I walk into the convenience store I am greeted every time, and thanked every time.  This is a basic and decent amount of human interaction–especially if you want people to pay you money for things–and even brings a certain amount of honor to transaction.In the larger shops they even go as far as to walk you out of the store and thank you profusely.

There’s also the practical side of service; across the board the package you items carefully and efficiently, and when it’s raining they often wrap your bag with a rain cover.

Of course, there is the dark overkill said to service, but not having purchased a car or a home (or really any item large enough to inspire desperation in a salesperson) I find that this brand of sales tactic seems to be confined to the young womens section of the department store.  I can only process these pop-driven, Girl fortresses as a series of blurry, glittering lights and the shrill sounds of intermittent high-pitched giggling between the sound a credit card swipes. Maybe the overkill approach appeals to this specific “tween” consumer, I don’t know and I am sure I wouldn’t know what it looked it. (full disclosure: I am a card carrying member of G.R.O.S.S, since 1988).

That niche market aside, I the level of service in America is more than a few god-awful training videos away from reaching the level of mastery where they work on refining their smile in a machine every morning. Let’s be honest though, refining your smile in a smile-measuring computer  is entirely absurd; it’s like three stages away from Total Recall technology.

However, while the usefulness of this machine is debatable, the greater significance–for me–is the role of this machine in the culture of statistical feedback. As I have mentioned, Japanese people have an emphatic and remarkable work ethic, and this ethic is fueled by setting goals, and receiving feedback to help them set goals to achieve. While I have yet to determine the root of this characteristic, Japan as a whole seems to value quantitative information and feedback higher than the basic qualitative advice. I can understand this to some degree because numbers are an easy way to explain and measure things. If you boss says you are doing the job at 80% then you know where you stand, and how much (but perhaps not what) more you need to do.  However, this can be taken to a fault; it can be applied in places where numbers don’t really work as a great system of measurement or offer insightful way to improve.

Recently in my science class we focused our emphasis on pronunciation. While it’s been a big help to some of the lower-level and beginning students, the head of the class introduced an exercise where the students repeat back to me the word we have just practiced and I give them a pronunciation grade. He asked me to give them a instant percentage grade on each attempt. However, this is class with many beginners; it became instantly clear to me that throwing out numbers could be rather demoralizing for some students who struggle with basic sounds–especially when we are practicing  words ranging from “light” to “tuyere” to “thermodynamics”.

Also, my mind does not work in a way that it can break down individual word pronunciation statistically. I can’t quickly  divide words by syllables or letters and then score which of those has been done perfectly, Furthermore, I don’t think that numbers serve or helpful method of measurement for aurual sounds. If I say it was an 80%, how does it teach the student to get a 100%? How is that even better than me just repeating the part of the word they have difficulty with and giving no score at all?

Having had my own troubles with pronouncing words in the past, I have come to the belief that grading pronunciation is better served by a system with the metrics of, “pass”, “fail”  and “close enough that your friends or colleagues won’t mock you”.

Accordingly, I adjusted my feedback to four responses with that hope that this system was helpful, yet also encouraging. I settled on: “perfect”, “very good”, “pretty good” and then one–in the event that they get stuck or completely mispronounced the word–where I grimaced a little and repeated the word. If they get below “very good” I always repeat the word and emphasize the problem area until they are able to get it correct.

Of course, while my plan seemed like a great idea, it was just another example of me blowing against the wind. At first the students seemed to like my new metrics. They would sort of act cocky and brag if they got a “perfect”. Within the second or third go around of the new scale, the head of the class turned to me and asked, “‘perfect’ is 100%?” “‘pretty good’ 80%? 90%” “‘very good’ is 75%? 60%? which?”. As soon as I compromised and answered those questions he began following up my student assessments by yelling out the corresponding percentage points every time.

Add this to the list of those great “oh yeah, I am in Japan moments”. I’ve learned all you can do in those situations is reach into your motherboard, adjust the dial, and turn your smile up to 110% (“super-perfect”).

That’s right, we smile at 11 over here.

small sacrifices
September 14, 2008, 5:12 pm
Filed under: Japan, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Coffee in Disguise

Coffee in Disguise

I’m not entirely sure which demographic this coffee targets. Clearly, the rainbow themed packaging would have a different connotation in the United States. I won’t even mention the Freudian “Suntory Boss” logo. Although, I will admit, on its own I think the Boss logo is cool– this may be inspired by the fact that on some of the ads, they use a picture of Tommy Lee Jones. I’ll drink any coffee that is Tommy Lee Jones approved.

Regardless, inside that purple top is a Transformers action figure. He is small and there is some assembly required, but he comes totally free with this coffee. Thus, I purchased the can and am now the proud owner of both a caffeine buzz, and empty rainbow coffee can and a Decepticon action figure. I am not surprised I fell for this gimmick, in spite of the packaging.

The ad wizards have known that  free robot action figures have been my Achillies heal in the past. It’s not like my house is swarming with them, but I am confident that somewhere in Corporate America there is a Dossier titled, “Ted and the McDonald’s ‘Free Toy Robot’  Happy Meal Giveaway:1988-89” that floats around and is occasionally cited in grandiose power point presentations.

I won’t go into too much detail, but with the exception of the time they interrupted “Muppet Babies” to show the protest in Tienanmen Square, all of my memories of that year consist of greasy hands and Chicken McNuggets. I may have consumed thousands of Chicken McNuggets.

In fact, if the advent of the TV-Talk Shows and Fast-Food backlash had come a bit earlier I’m sure my experience would have merited a free trip to the Maury Povich Show where studious audience members would have berated my parents with shameful insults while I, oblivious and greasy, played with robots 4-7. You can’t blame my parents though. My desire to collect the entire series of robots was instinctual, primal and  unstoppable.

Old habits die hard and I’m sure the next few weeks with my find my blood pumping caffiene and my apartmetn litered with preference-ambigous rainbow cans.

(Note: I now have two, and had to talk myself out of #3 this evening also, it appears this advertising agaency Suntory has chosen have recieved some accolades for their work: Award for Tommy Lee Jones)

small rodents and big gorillas.
bridge to a future Robot factory?

bridge to a future Robot factory?

This afternoon I was greeted with a sight that I am less than enthusiastic about. The owner of the prestigious Indian restaurant I frequently dine at, walked by rather swiftly with the head of shopping center security team (Ako’s finest no doubt). In his hand, the head of security was carrying a high-powered flashlight. Not a mag-lite or something you would use to subdue a hooligan, rather the kind of flashlight you would want if you were looking for something small….and perhaps agile.

At this point, any conclusion I come to is pure speculation, but this is not usually a good omen. When I saw the security guard leaving the eatery he had a bit of a hop in his step. It is difficult to interpet what that meant. My thoughts: either something was dropped some place dark and unmentionable, or more likely, they had summoned security to help them secure the kitchen area from an unwanted, and most likely, non-human intruder. Needless to say, I will be going on a short curry fast–for religious purposes, obviously.

I do want to comment that I think this would be one area where Japan’s robot infatuation would be handy.  What’s preventing them from taking the “roomba” a step further and adding some heat sensors, small arms weaponary and a “kitchen sentinle” mode? Certainly not desire or demand…

In other news, it happened today. In my science class the proverbial “bomb was dropped and the bomb was mentioned. I must confess, I asked for it. We were wrapping up the unit on Nuclear Physics and I needed a short activity that was that was highly verbal, featured the original thoughts of the student, and cumulatively covered the unit. Invoking the spirit of Socrates, I went for “Benefits and Detriments of Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Technology”. For purposes of the class, this was titled “Nuclear Phsyics: Pro-Con”.

I had them write five ideas for both “Pro” and “Con” on a sheet and then went over them in a short class discussion, eliciting one idea from them each.  Being the curious idiot that I am, I amd sure I secretly wanted to see how many students it would take before the “a” word was mentioned.For those of your scoring at home, (now is the time get out your “Teaching in Socks” bingo” cards!) the answer was four.

I know for a fact the first three all had “atomic bombs” listed on their sheet but omitted it. I even saw the second student I called on mull over his list, look at me, and decide to dodge that landmine.  Not that he should feel ashamed or afraid to say it, but I appreciated the polite gesture in attempting to avoid something he decided would been uncomfortable for me.

I got to appreciate that sentiment for about 20 seconds. When the words “atomic bomb” were said, I replied, “un-huh” and wrote “nuclear weapons” on the board under the “con” portion of the list. I might have been subconsciously shaking my head, mostly in response to the internal though of “one year ago I never would imagined I’d be doing this” however, the students must have been keen to my body language, or just generally aware of the situation, as they started the ribbing the student who provided the answers with quite whispers of what I imagine translates into, “nice one” or “good going, idiot”. When I got to the next student, he claimed to not have an answer to contribute at all and the following students stuck to more medical aspects of the science. I don’t think it was all that uncomfortable, but I purposely misprounounced some words comically  at the end of class to try and lighten the mood regardless. We’ll see what happens when I teach the class again tomorrow.  I’m holding out for total mutinity.