Written By Tom Legge, Illustrations by Marissa Trierweiler, Edited by Liz Millership
My first week at Upper High Barnet Secondary School was a whirlwind, to be honest. I’ve never felt so intimidated in all my life. On my first day, I was introduced to the entire school in the Assembly Hall and was made to give a short speech in English. I had spent months planning this speech, working on my pronunciation and trying to speak loudly enough so that the average human being might have a chance of making out a few words.
It was, frankly, a disaster. As I stood up on the stage ready to deliver my speech, I looked at the sea of pupils’ faces staring back at me and was taken aback. At least 90% of the students were making what can only be described as “obscene” gestures at me. It was as if they had made a conscientious effort beforehand to plan such a display. As if they were performing for some sort of TV show. I have never seen so many middle fingers, oscillating wrists and fricatives being mouthed at the same time.
Some had joined into pairs to present their “welcome” in an even more graphic manner that really cannot be described in these pages. I even glimpsed a couple of banners upon which, though the English was incomprehensible, the crude drawings more than drove the message home. Teachers were trying to stop the madness but to no avail. A few of them had even joined in.
It was then, with some trepidation, that I finally began speaking. On telling them my name, the whole assembly hall roared with laughter – I assume a pronunciation error. I told them where I was from but it was obvious that they had no idea where that was or that it was famous for ramen! I told them how I loved listening to the Beatles, to which someone shouted, “The Beatles are shit!” Having checked my dictionary afterwards, it’s now clear that “Thank you. Let’s listen together some time” was not the best response.
I stumbled through the rest of the speech, instantly regretting including the line “Let’s look forward to learning lots of lovely Japanese”, which brought more deafening laughter. As I reached the end of my speech, my cheeks covered in tears and my brow drenched in sweat, something amazing happened. I looked up from my solemn bow to see the previously hostile audience now on their feet, their threatening faces now covered in smiles, to the most rapturous applause I had ever witnessed.
I was confused. Minutes ago, they had done all in their power to frighten and intimidate me and now here we were: best of friends. Perhaps it was some sort of ritual or rite of passage? It was suddenly apparent that I had passed their test. They had plunged me into the abyss of despair and I had come out the other side fighting. The obscene gestures were now gone, replaced by clapping and whoops and cheers of “Well played, son”, “Brush yourself off, pal”, “Solid work, lad“ and, for some reason, “F***ing legend, Yoshi. Where’s Mario?”
With assembly over and several pats on the back and ruffling of my hair behind me, I headed to the staff room to speak to my supervisor about the week’s schedule. My supervisor is called Wayne, a bald-headed single 32-year old with a relaxed attitude towards work and, indeed, life in general. Wayne is one of the 4 ETJ’s (English Teacher of Japanese) here so I would be teaching alongside him in some of his classes. I was told by one of the other Japanese teachers that under no circumstances was I to learn any English from Wayne whatsoever, lest I want to end up offending the entire English-speaking population of Japan on my return.
Wayne explained that I would be teaching my first class in 10 minutes’ time and that the school “never really bothered with lesson plans”. I was to introduce myself again, this time in Japanese and have the students ask me questions. Though I would have appreciated a little more warning, I didn’t trouble Wayne with telling him this. I am sure he had done the best he could to help. I explained to him that I had brought with me some OHP sheets, a floppy disk with worksheets on it, some slide photos and a tape cassette of some traditional Japanese music. Wayne laughed and said something about the 1980s. He also used the word “fuck” a lot.
With seconds to spare, an OHP was located but the worksheets, music and photos would have to wait for another day due to “technical” difficulties. I’m not sure if this was the real reason as it was accompanied with lots of sniggering and a couple more lewd gestures. I set off to class with Wayne, the nerves building in the pit of my stomach. I hoped they would like me, or at least listen to what I had to say.
On entering the classroom, I was greeted with more whoops and cheers (and a few dirty looks) until Wayne told everyone to “shut up and listen to what our Japanese mate has to say about himself”. It was at that point, when the room reached near-silence, that I heard the first piece of Japanese to come out of a British student’s mouth:
“Nihongo wa shit desu”.
At least his grammar was good.
I rattled off my presentation at break-neck speed, pretending not to hear the sarcastic comments and ignoring the faces being pulled by some in the class. It passed largely without incident save for it taking me several minutes to realize that one of them had drawn quite a detailed penis in the corner of one of my OHP slides. (Come to think of it, it might have been Wayne)
We finished the lesson with questions. I was confident and composed at this point. I had spent weeks thinking of the possible questions that lower-level Japanese learners might ask me so my responses were ready. However, nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught that came next.
It was nothing short of a press conference; such was the scrabble to be the first to ask. No topic was off-limits, no subject too blue no stone left unturned. I was asked in a bizarre mix of English and rapidly-dictionary-sourced Japanese about subjects including but no limited to: my sexual preferences, genital hygiene, mother’s telephone number (I couldn’t remember the country code), fondness for “chow mein”, whether I would eat my school lunches raw and the availability of my sister. I was exhausted when the questions finally ceased. On reflection it was touching that they took such an interest in me.
This pattern followed in lessons throughout the week: I would give a presentation. Wayne would draw a penis on my OHP sheet. The students would laugh then ask me the most embarrassing or crude questions possible in their basic Japanese. As the week went on, I learnt to smile at their questions, to retaliate a little (“joshing”) and I slowly began to make some friends.
It was a crazy week in so many respects. I went through so many different emotions that I hardly knew whether I was coming or going. I honestly considered packing up my things and returning to Japan on about 25 occasions but something at the back of my mind kept telling me that things would get easier. They would get better. Perhaps that defining moment came when it was time to head home at 4:30pm on Friday, I was making my way gingerly through a mass of students blocking the exit and I heard a voice behind me say in broken Japanese.
“Hey, Mr Takeshita, your sister called me. We’re going on a date tomorrow at 8-o-clock”
“That’s great”, I replied.
“I’ll be there too. I’m bringing your Mum”.
The grin on his face told me all that I needed to know. I was going to be fine.