This article was originally published in the Hampton Union newspaper of Hampton, New Hampshire on September 25, 2007. You can also read the article here on the Hampton Union website.
On Aug. 5, I arrived in Japan to start my job as an assistant language teacher of English at a high school in Kobe, Japan. Several orientations later, I’m finally settling into my new home and preparing for the start of classes.
Even though Kobe is on the other side of the planet from Hampton, there are a lot of spots that remind me of home. Not far from my apartment, I can take a train to the beach and stroll along the boardwalk. Sunbathers tan during the day and meet friends at bars or clubs at night. I don’t get to see Hampton Beach fireworks, but the giant Ferris wheel at Harbor Land puts on quite a show of flashing electric light. I have yet to find a fried dough stand, but tako-yaki, small balls of dough with octopus inside, actually make for a great snack.
The nearby harbor area, with its mix of shipping industries, small restaurants, and posh shopping is reminiscent of Portsmouth, and just as the New Hampshire woods and hiking trails have never been far from Hampton, Kobe is surrounded by mountains to the north that provide a nice break from the city life.
This summer, temperatures were brutally hot in Japan. The cicadas buzz loudly from every tree and the air is thick and humid. Even though there is a short summer vacation in August, the halls of the school are filled with the students’ voices. Boys in heavy padding practice kendo in the hot gym and girls run softball drills in the dry dirt field. Down the hall from the teachers’ office, the brass band plays scales on tubas and trumpets.
When I was a high school student in New Hampshire, I don’t remember ever stepping foot inside my school during summer vacation. Vacation days were precious and meant to be spent as far away from academia as possible. However, for these Japanese students, vacation seems to be precious time for practicing with their clubs. In addition to their classes, most students join a single club and stick with it for their three years of senior high school. Sports and music clubs, in particular, demand an incredible time commitment, with daily practices that often run during the weekend as well as weekdays.
Instead of following a regular season of home and away games, clubs participate in large tournaments with other schools. If a club only has one tournament in the year, they may only have that one chance to showcase their hours and hours of practice.
Third-year students come into school to take supplementary classes for their college entrance exams. In the states we have the grueling and nerve-racking experience of the SATs, but high school students have some consolation knowing their essays and school records will also be taken into account along with their test scores. Entrance into prestigious schools in Japan depends solely on the exams and each college has a different test. The exams are so demanding many students attend jyuku — cram schools — in the evenings after their regular classes and club practices. Some students even take a year off after high school to devote all their time to studying for the exams.
Overcoming this emphasis on testing is my first challenge as an English-language teacher. All students are required to take English classes, but the textbooks and teaching materials are always made with the exams in mind. Instead of teaching real-life, practical English skills, students only learn how to pass the English portions of written tests. My job is to actually get them speaking and listening to English in the hopes they will have a more functional grasp on the language.
Even though I am only an assistant teacher, and my desk is in the spot of lowest rank in the staff room, I have a fast-growing celebrity status with the students. Foreigners are still rare in Japan and just one look at me is enough to start a fit of giggles in any group of students.
My curly hair and goatee become things of wonder. In the past few weeks, I have been likened to Elijah Wood, his “Lord of the Rings” counterpart Frodo Baggins, Orlando Bloom and a Greek God. I try not to let this go to my head. Their reactions at least help me remember that native English speakers have a rare and important place in a Japanese school. I only hope I can live up to their expectations as class begins this fall.