Most people when they study abroad tend to take it easy on any sort of responsibilities and focus only on having fun. While this is great, I was not so lax. Not only did my grades transfer directly back, requiring me to concentrate on school while having fun, I also picked up a part-time job. A student visa lets exchange students work for less than 20 hours. I was offered a position teaching English at an after-school program in Akita city. You might think I was hesitant to work, but in fact it was a great opportunity, a fun experience, and gave me a little extra spending money. What’s not to like?
I worked on Saturdays, and occasionally on Wednesdays if my recruiter, coworker, and fellow AIU student needed a shift covered. The first day I went into the city was to visit my new employer, with my friend to guide me. The drive there was lovely, as we passed seemingly endless rows of rice farms. Once we reached the city, however, I was a bit taken aback by the sudden urban scenery. Signs in half-familiar Japanese flanked me from all sides, with bright colors and cute mascots beckoning. Akita city is by no means a busy or crowded city, but it is still a stark contrast to the countryside of AIU.
The company I was to teach with was in a small building, surrounded by a sushi restaurant on one side, and a convenience store (konbini) across the street. When I walked in, I had to take off my shoes in the front area called a genkan. Japanese people are very particular about taking off shoes, and this is a distinct feature of Japanese homes. As silly as it may sound, I was delighted to be performing in this daily ritual of Japanese life. My boss was a Japanese man who had lived in the United States for much of his life. He didn’t need to give me a tour, because there was only one room, bisected by a tall book shelf. The décor was bright, cheerful, and very similar to any other elementary/middle school classroom. He gave me the textbook to take home and study, and told me what my students were like. He said that they were considered to be advanced for their age in the English language. With more than a little pride, he told me, “They are pretty smart.”
My second trip there was terrifying and great all at once. I had instructions from my friend on which buses to take, and where to get off, but I was very nervous. I gave myself a ridiculous amount of time to make sure I could make up for anything I might do wrong. Somehow I managed to get it all right, however I fumbled for a long time trying to count out the right change when I paid. I got a lot of awkward stares. (After that I would always have my fare ready and counted out.) Miraculously, I wasn’t late.
My first class was somewhat awkward. I had 3 students, two younger ones in late elementary who were brother and sister, and an older girl in middle school. They were all lovely, if a bit shy. I introduced myself, using my much practiced jikoshoukai (self-introduction). I asked them where they were in the book, and tested them a bit to get a grasp of their level. My understanding is that most Japanese students know how to read and write English fairly well, but can hardly speak or understand it. Thus I wanted to really focus on the oral part of the lesson. To get them used to hearing it, I would explain first in English, try my best to clarify in Japanese, and then repeat the explanation again in English. (My opinion is first-language support while learning in the lower levels of a second language is more effective than full immersion classes.) I also quizzed them in English. Luckily, they were fast learners and the awkwardness faded after a couple weeks.
Teaching them was a lot of fun, and I had the pleasure of teaching them a little about the United States, as well. I learned more about them and more about being a kid in Akita. On my last day with them, I bought them all cake to thank them for being so awesome. Before, I didn’t want to teach English in Japan, which is a common first career move for Japanese majors. This experience changed my mind. Now I am thinking that I might not just teach English in Japan, but maybe around the world! After all, I know from experience how crossing language barriers can help you cross country borders. J