Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Cock of the walk


Last Thursday was the first day of the Fall term, so they held an opening ceremony to welcome me to the school. Most other JET teachers have a similar event on their arrival, in which they are expected to stand in front of all the students and give a short self-introduction, in English usually. Anticipating this, I wasn`t too worried about the event. However, mine was a little different because of my (reputed) Japanese ability. The vice-principal approached me a week or so earlier and told me he was really looking forward to my speech in Japanese. I, a bit confused as to the idea of giving an actual "speech" asked him how long they expected me to speak. He explained that, considering my level of langauge study, they were planning on at least 5 minutes. He shrugged his shoulders and said casually, "surely a graduate of UCLA who studied at Waseda would have no problem giving a speech like that."

Basically, the vice-principal called me out.

So I wrote a real speech over the next week, occasionally consulting with my personal tutor (Maiko). I finished it the day before the ceremony and handed in a copy to the vice-principal.

Thursday morning was also a fire and earthquake drill, so I was to give my speech at after the students had evacuated out onto the athletic grounds. Fun thing about the emergency drills here, every student and teacher has a white helmet to wear. I have a helmet too, but since I have a freakishly large head even for a white person, the helmet is too small to protect me entirely. So I have to decide, when the time comes, whether I want to protect the front or back of my skull(I actually consulted with the biology teacher about which lobe of the brain would be more vital; whether I would choose basic functions over higher thought). Even more awesome than the helmets are the great blue jumpsuits that the principal and vice-principal put on in emergencies. They look either like a garbageman or a spaceman, depending on which you find more amusing. The idea of there being an earthquake and the principal running off to throw on his jumpsuit is just fantastic. Maybe he stands in front of the jumpsuit, housed in a glass case, wondering whether the situation really warrants it - is this really a "jumpsuit worthy" emergency? Anyways, like we don't know who the principal is already. Japanese people don`t look that similar.

The students and teachers tramp out to the athletic field - more accurately the big, open dirt space that passes for a field here - and line up in neat, orderly rows. The students are all wearing their uniforms, accompanied by their white helmets. A teacher stands in front on an elevated platform and barks orders at them through a loudspeaker. There is a definite fascist air to the proceeding. I amuse myself by imagining having a friend here who doesn't understand Japanese and wildly mistranslating the speech about earthquake safety into some deranged rant about the need to raze the corrupt bureaucracy to the ground and seize power in a wave of bloodshed, the only way to restore the honor of this ancient nation which has lost its way, in the name of the true Japan and its eternal symbol the holy Emperor! Actually, let me attach a great picture taken shortly after the ceremony from the preparations for the big sports festival. This needs even less fake explication to invite images of fascism/communism.

Anyways, I stand in the sun with the other teachers until I see the old kendo teacher standing by himself over in the shade. I have already been outside in the 90 something degree sun and awful humidity for 15 minutes, which is 15 minutes more than my pale sickly skin can stand, so I go join the old guy in the shade. Emboldened by my rash, individualistic decision, several other teachers who were planning on suffering silenly join us under the trees nearby. We watch the continued ranting of the man on the platform while cooling off, both pitying and amused at the students who remain roasting in the hot sun. I wonder what effect this will have on their excitement about listening to my speech. I show my speech to the Beach Boys teacher, he finds it very amusing, but in a nice little stab right before I go on stage, warns me that Japanese students probably won't laugh when assembled as a group, even if they do find it funny. I imagine 1200 students staring at me when a joke falls flat, and his comment cuts me like the experts who bleed the bulls before they are sent out to meet the matador.

The rant ends, the principal takes the stage and I am introduced. The eyes of all 1200 students turn to me as I stride up to the podium. I look up at the students, take a deep breath and start my speech in Japanese:

おはようございます。("Good morning")

A rush of murmurs breaks over the students like a wave as they realize I am going to give the speech in Japanese. It occurs to me that none of them knew beforehand that I could speak Japanese.

"Nice to meet you. My name is Lucas Adams, I'm from San Diego, California, in the United States. I'm 22 years old and I just graduated from UCLA. Having majored in Japanese at UCLA and studied it at Waseda last year from January until September, that I am still this poor at speaking the language is really quite embarassing, isn't it? Really, I'm quite sorry."

The students, over their initial shock, laugh at this obviously false modesty, giving that I have just said all this in perfect Japanese. I, over my initial apprehension, fall back into my usual comfortability with public speaking, and feel totally in control again. I start by talking about the difficulties in speaking a second language, joking that I am glad I was born in the US just so I never had to learn English in school. I tell a fun story - one oft repeated on any occasion I can find, really - about mixing up the words "okoru", to become angry, and "ogoru", to treat to a meal when out on a group date last year with several Japanese. The punch line is, of course, me accidentally offering to pay for everything and ending up out of some $150.

"Perhaps you all have been told before, 'One learns from their mistakes'. Well, I learned quite well from that one. $150 is a an expensive vocabulary lesson, ne?"

The students eat this up.

I then shift the speech to something a bit less funny, but being given a chance to actually address all the students and teachers at once, I felt it was too good to pass up. Also, it being the beginning of my time at the school, I wanted to make plain my beliefs about education. So, if I strangely had to translating my own writing from Japanese back to English, it went something like this:

"Of course, in today's Japan English study is important for both entering a good university and future success in the work force. However, when studying, there is something you should not forget. English is not a subject just like math or science. If you study physics or math, you will come to understand the laws that govern the world around you, and cause and effect in the world will become clear to you. However, studying English is not studying the world. English is purely a tool of communication. If you don't use it, it will rust. But, if you use it correctly, it can open up a new world previously closed to you. I feel this has happened to me with Japanese. You can make friends, you can travel, you can have new experiences. But it can also lead you into new awakenings within your own mind. Languages do not overlap exactly. English is more analytical and direct. Japanese is more subtle and intuitive. Learning more languages opens up more modes of communication of our emotions. Language is something that lives outside of the classroom, but if you treat it purely as an academic subject it will lose its meaning and die. If you treat it as a living thing, it will improve your life. Thank you."

I bow to the students, walk off the platform and bow to the principal, who smiles broadly. Rejoining the teachers in the shade, they are somewhat shocked. I realize again, that most of them didn't know I could speak any Japanese either. The Beach Boys teacher gives me a pat on the back. I walk off feeling like a politician fresh off a stump speech with my shirt and tie; another teacher compares me to a dictator riling up the crowd. I feel as if it was successful above all my expectations, though, to be fair, my main wish was just not to totally die on stage in front of 1200 students. For the rest of the day, teachers come up to me separately to tell me they enjoyed my speech greatly and agree with what I said about the nature of language.

The students, on the other hand, seemed to only absorb certain parts of the speech. My library buddies from the previous story (I made $150 today), pictured here, run up to me afterwards to giggle about dating girls. Students come up to me all that week to laugh about the stories. One girl in class looks up at me, dreamy-eyed, hands on her cheeks, leaning her elbows on the desk, sighs and swoons, "I wish you would take me out, Mr. Adams."

Ah well...I should have learned in debate to play to my audience.

3 comments:

Colin Weatherby said...

You really need to take full advantage of this deity position they've put you in....I know their Buddhist and whatnot, but I think ever Japanese girls want the opportunity to sleep with a god.

By the way, what are their statutes on age-of-consent?

drcaa said...

That's a great way to start your year. i'm sure your Japanese is improving every day!

drcaa said...

By the way, is that my tie?