At the one year mark, more than ever, it is best to explore my current perspective on life and work for a foreigner teaching in Japan while trying to learn the language and "blend in": Living here is difficult. The word "difficult" being a relative term needs to be made clear:
- difficult : (adj.) requiring an amount of work, motivation, courage, humility, and failure greater than that to which one is comfortably accustomed.
To elaborate on this point for living in Japan, allow me to explore specific details from my living situation.
Example 1. Learning a new language is difficult for people past a certain age because it takes more work and motivation than they have become used to with their native language.
Spending a year exploring conventional as well as experimental methods of language learning has revealed a lot about my own ability with language in general. I'm a slow reader and a slow writer. At times I can be called a slow talker. If there is such a thing as a slow listener, I would call myself that as well because even in English I have difficulty hearing and understanding what is being said at times. I have yet to hear of a case where someone's ability with a foreign language exceeds their native language ability (except of course in the case where one's own native ability has deteriorated out of non-use), so it is only logical to assume one's ability with a foreign language will never be better than the best one can be with a native language. Achieving the best level, even, requires a lot of dedication. I am constantly frustrated and humiliated by my own shortcomings of English, especially when they effect my ability with Japanese.
Example 2. Living in a culture where one is heavily stereotyped as being unable to communicate on a basic level is difficult because it takes more courage than in one's home culture just to go out into public--something that often feels like a constant battle with said stereotyping.
Occasionally I let myself play the part of a foreigner that doesn't speak Japanese, but never before now have I actually had the obstinate defiance towards attempts to communicate. This feeling is born from being conscientious about the contention with the foreigner stereotype in Japan, and being beaten by it. Times when culture shock is setting in and you want to eat a good meal from your homeland or shut out the foreign environment for a while--these are the times when one is most vulnerable to being beaten by the foreigner stereotype and contracting gaijin syndrome.
And the worse part is that gaijin syndrome can be contagious. Hanging around other foreigners who frequently make comments or deductions about interaction with the foreign environment in which you are both living and relating it to the foreigner stereotype can have an undesirable effect. It is easy to listen to these claims and begin making some of your own just for kicks or perhaps even speculation, but that is when the infection begins.
Example 3. Teaching in a language foreign to one's students is difficult because it takes more humility and failure than one may be used to in a past line of work at home.
Not only is it a difficult thing for the teacher, but for the students as well (see Example 1 above). Foreign language learning is not so difficult when done alongside native language learning simply because the learning activity is the same, just with different content. It's like raising two children just a few years apart as opposed to waiting until the first goes off to college before getting pregnant with the second. In the latter situation, your teenager is easier to feed, clothe, and take out in public than a baby (all parental-defiant angst aside). Going back to the beginning again would be a major shift in your daily activity, and you probably don't remember how you did it the first time. In this regard, maturing a second language is no different.
If it were not as difficult for the student, then perhaps it would not be as difficult for the teacher. One major problem I am forcing myself to face now is the conflict between my own wishes for my students and the wishes the students may have for themselves. For me, Japanese was an implement of my dreams and through my own dedication to learning the language and culture, I was able to fulfill my dream of exploring a wonderland far different than home. Since English is the primary language of communication for the global world, wouldn't the promise of foreign lands be enough to motivate my students to give 100% in their English studies??
Most are content with graduating from a Japanese university and working at a Japanese job to lead an ordinary Japanese life. Even those that spend a year abroad end up abandoning whatever dreams they had for many reasons, such as financial difficulty, the ever-increasing scale of foreign language study, or simply being content with what they found abroad. So a teacher has to resort to "clown tactics"--performing tricks and handing out freebies--or risk losing the students' attention to the forces of mediocrity.
I chose these three points in hopes of illustrating the problems with my current perspective, and highlighting what needs to change. When beginning my new classes this year, I told my students that nothing is really difficult--it just takes a lot of work. My hope was to plant the seed for unearthing their potential in the course by giving them a different way to think about difficult tasks, because it is in thinking that a task is difficult that one begins to lose hope of finishing it.
So in taking my own advice, I present what I believe to be the key to living successfully in Japan: deniability. All criminal implications aside, my point is to willfully ignore these antagonistic situations described above.
★ Language ability certainly has a limit. Neuroscience is discovering the genetic characteristics of learning that prove these limits. Dwelling on one's potential limit is the most detrimental to learning. The true test of ability is through successful communication. Make a habit of enjoying the good conversations and forgetting the bad.
★ Stereotypes exist everywhere in the world. Travelling from country to country, you will appear different in every local people's eyes. To many, these stereotypes offer security as it gives them a set of rules for how they should interact with a stranger. These rules come from assumptions that are made based on characteristics of the stereotype. But you can't control the way others react, only the way you yourself react. So pretend the stereotype doesn't exist. When locals make a generalizing statement of which you are an exception, act surprised. Accepting the stereotype when it is presented to you will only reinforce it, whereas questioning it will plant the seed of doubt in the other's mind.
★ Purpose is one of the hardest things to live without. In fact, it relates to the three upper tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Aspirations form the columns of purpose. Unfortunately, not all aspirations can be shared. Why teach English to these students? There are many answers to that question, most of which probably aren't sufficient. Many are only learning it for fun thanks to the "clown tactics" employed by teachers they had before you. Most of them probably wouldn't satisfy the government-mandated English requirements if it weren't for these tactics. Others have probably already decided they will never use outside of class what it is you are teaching them. Worse still, 90% of anything they learn in school probably won't be used outside of class. This is the heaviest and hardest to ignore. But there are exceptions. Teach to the students with the potential. Do it simply enough that others can follow along and you will have the added effect of not ruining interest out of complexity.
Last year, inspired by a book about teaching, I asked my college Japanese professor about her personal objective as a teacher. I guess I was expecting something like "to spread cultural awareness and interest in Japan," but what she told me was more like "to give my students a class they can enjoy." I didn't quite understand it at the time and was a bit disappointed. I thought I was different because I had actually hoped to use what I was learning in her class after graduation. In retrospect, it wasn't much different for me though. As a student in an engineering major, my Japanese class every quarter was the one break in my schedule that I looked forward to. The content and assignments always felt lighter and friendlier than those related to my engineering discipline. I always said it was Japanese that kept me sane.
If I could do the same for my students--provide something new and different than their usual Japanese lectures while giving an outlet to those interested in the world outside Japan--maybe I can be happy with that purpose.
I've come so far. Yet I still have so much to learn.