“This year we have a class where we introduce the children to their neighbors on the island,” said the principal of the Shiraishi Elementary School. “So we’d like you to come and talk to the children and tell them why you like living on the island.”
“The class will have four first-year students and two second-year students.”
So on the appointed day, I walked up to the elementary school. The teacher had set up a chair in front of the class for me to sit on. The students sat in a line of six chairs facing me.
If you’ve ever done anything like this, you know that whenever you go into a Japanese classroom, you are always accompanied by a Japanese teacher.
This teacher’s job is to interfere with what you’re trying to teach, and to, at times, hijack the lesson. You see, teachers are natural control freaks and can’t resist jumping in to your lesson to reassure the students that they are still the No. 1 teacher.
The second-year students already know me, because I’ve taught them English before. The first-year students don’t know me yet but have seen me around at island events.
Each student stood up, gave his or her name, and sat down. Last was 6-year-old Mau-chan, the smallest and youngest of the children.
Cute as a dot, she was sitting in the last chair, like a period at the end of a sentence. She told me her name was Mau but her friends call her “uma,” which means horse. “Oh, why do they call you that?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said shrugging her shoulders with a smile.
I started by telling the students I was from the United States and that I had lived in the city of Okayama before moving to Shiraishi Island. I told them that although I enjoyed living in the city, I like the countryside because I like to wake up to the sounds of nature.
“I wake up to the sounds of the Japanese warbler!” said one student. “I wake up to the sound of my cat!” another student offered.
I also like the yama, I said, using the Japanese word for mountain. Do you know what yama is in English? While the second year students were trying to remember, the teacher was on the sidelines giving hints, “Ma, ma . . . ,” she said. To which I said, “moun, moun . . . ” and the students finished the word for me: mountain!
I also like the umi, I said, using the Japanese word for sea. The teacher stood on the sidelines giving hints, “shhhhhhh, shhhhhh . . . ” to which I said, “sssss, sssss . . . ” and the students finished the word for me: sea!
“And the people are very nice on the island,” I said. “They always say ‘Hello’ and ‘Good morning.’ On the mainland, when you pass people on the street, they don’t give greetings.”
Whoops! This was the wrong thing to tell 6- and 7-year-olds.
“What?” They looked at each other in disbelief. “They don’t give greetings?!” These Japanese children grow up being told they should always give greetings.
“That’s terrible!” said one of the students, clearly upset. The students were reeling now. Their warm and fuzzy world had just been shattered. This was the worst news they had heard in their six years of life. It was as if I had just revealed that there was no such thing as Santa Claus.
“I’m a horse!” shouted Mau-chan, getting cuter by the minute.
Mau-chan’s mother is Chinese and so is one of the other boy’s mother. So I told them, “I like Shiraishi because it is very international. We have Japanese people, Chinese people, an American and an Australian living here . . . “
The children’s eyes grew wide in disbelief “What? Australia? We have someone living here from Australia?! That’s sooooo cool. Who, who?” they wanted to know.
“My husband is from Australia,” I said, and although some of the students know my husband, apparently that didn’t matter because they didn’t realize he was from Australia. Now, he had reached God-like status. All the students wanted to meet him, even if they already had!
While I tried to move on to the next subject, they were still awestruck that there was Australian was living among us. “Australia! Wow — Australia!” I mean, this was the most exciting thing they had heard in the last five minutes!
At this point, the teacher was beside herself. She had stood on the sidelines, useless, for 20 minutes.
“Tell the students how long you’ve been living on Shiraishi Island,” she said. I didn’t really see how this would be relevant to 6- and 7-year-olds who have no concept of time, but bowing to pressure, so to speak, I said, “I’ve been on Shiraishi Island for 14 years.”
This was problematic of course, as the students don’t know the difference between 14 years and 2,000 years. So the teacher stepped in, “You all know Mana-chan in the junior high school, right? She’s 14 years old. So, Amy-sensei came to the island the same time Mana-chan was born.”
OMG! This was unbelievable! Mana-chan is in junior high — so she’s really old! And Amy-sensei was probably born waaaaaay before Mana-chan, possibly back in the Jomon Period.
Then the teacher went into full hijacking mode, taking the class in a completely irrelevant direction.
“What sounds do dogs make in English?” she asks me.
“Oh, many different sounds,” I said, trying to steer her away from the Bow-wow Conversation. “Like what?” She wanted to know. “Well, there’s woof-woof, and then there’s ruff-ruff,” I said. I know she wants me to say “bow-wow,” but I just can’t because I have reached my Bow-wow Conversation limit.
For some reason, every Japanese person has heard that in English dogs say “bow-wow” and chickens say “cocka-doodle-doo.” Hundreds of Japanese people have pointed this out to me over the years.
The problem with the Bow-wow Conversation is that once you start it, you have to go through the whole damn barnyard of animal sounds. And besides, this is my class, isn’t it?
Luckily, music started drifting in to the classroom from the gymnasium, where island residents were practicing the Shiraishi Bon dance. The students, who learn the dance in kindergarten, automatically got up out of their chairs and started dancing for me.
At the end of the class, Mau-chan came up to me and said, “I’m a horse,” and pointed to her name tag that showed her name in hiragana: ma-u. Backward, in Japanese syllables, it spells u-ma.