Archive for October, 2008

Guess Who

Anyone who has seen Lost in Translation and Bill Murray’s “Lip my stockings!” incident has a general notion of the Japanese troubles with English pronunciation. Throughout my classroom visits and repeated “Herro, Brandon-sensi!”, I have a pretty good idea of which sounds my students have trouble saying. Just like the English alphabet lacks the deep-throated German “kk” or the tongue-rolling Spanish “rr,” the Japanese syllabary lacks any “th-,” “l-,” “j-,” “v-,” or “f-” sounds. I lucked out with a relatively easy name: Bu-ran-don. However, had some of you taken my place here in Japan, you might have given your students some interesting tongue twisters. Below is a list of some of your more enigmatic names in romaji (meaning with Japanese pronunciation). See if you can guess who:


And some names of places:

Give up? Here’s the answer key:


Los Angeles

And of course, more Jeopardy entertainment: In response to the question “In America, what meat do most people eat on Thanksgiving? (Hint: it’s a bird),” I received as answers “Christmas Eve” and “9-1-1.”

Then, when asked to try to spell my name in English, one boy wrote on the board, “Brandon Clown.” I think I like that better.

A proud moment

So far, I communicate with my junior high school kids primarily through broken English and bits of Japanese outside of class. In most cases, it is a simple “Brandon-sensei! Herro!” followed by frantic waving and high-fiving. However, as I was sitting at my desk, I spotted a girl staring at me from outside the teacher’s room. When I waved to her, she did the standard Japanese-schoolgirl-giggle and pointed at my flash cards. I told her I was studying katakana and hiragana (two of the three syllabaries that make up the Japanese written language). This gave her enough courage to come in and write her name in hiragana. Well, after I pronounced (or most likely butchered) her name, she got really excited. She began writing something in English, thought for a second, crossed it out and slowly said:

“My fa…fav?…favorito singa….is….Chris Brown. My favorito…songu is…’Shorty Like Mine’.”

Not a memorized textbook line. No resorting to Japanese. This was the first original complete-sentenced English statement I’ve heard from any of my students, with some hip-hop vernacular to boot. I couldn’t be prouder.

Of course, this was offset an hour later while playing Jeopardy in one of my 9th grade classes. Responding to the question “How many letters are in the alphabet?” a boy quickly raised his hand, paused, furrowed his eyebrows, then gasped as realization dawned on him, and shouted


The Alphabet Song and Breakdancing: More Crazy Things in Japan

The Alphabet Song
I don’t know about you, but I grew up with the fairly standardized Alphabet Song. It went something like:

A B C D E F G,
Q R S,
T U V,
W X,
Y and Z
Now I know my ABCs, won’t you sing along with me?

However, my Japanese kids are learning some interesting versions:

A B C D E F G,
Q R S and T U V,
Dou-ble-U and
Happy happy I will be, when I sing my ABCs!

or even stranger:

A B C D E F G,
H I J K L M N,
O P Q R S T U,
V W and X Y Z
Happy happy I’m happy, I can sing my ABCs!

The last one doesn’t even rhyme! I mess up every time the students sing these skewed versions, so much so that I’m pretty sure they think I don’t know the alphabet.

The Hokey Pokey
Similar to the Alphabet Song, I thought the Hokey Pokey was pretty straightforward:

You put your _____ _____ in,
You put your _____ _____ out,
You put your _____ _____ in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around.
That’s what it’s all about.

However, the Japanese do it a little differently:

You put your _____ _____ out,
You put your _____ _____ in,
You put your _____ _____ out,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn yourself around.
That’s what it’s all about.

Ohhh, do the Hokey Cokey,
Ohhh, do the Hokey Cokey,
Ohhh, do the Hokey Cokey,
Knees bend, arms stretch, ra ra ra!

At first, I thought this was a typo. However, once the kids started singing, I knew they were seasoned Hokey Cokeyers. I considered correcting them, but who am I to say it isn’t called the Hokey Cokey?

Table Manners
I love eating here. First off, instead of keeping your head over your plate, in Japan, you bring the plate to your face. The engineer in me agrees with this method: if the goal is to bring the food to your mouth, don’t you want to minimize the distance the food must travel? See Mom – I didn’t have bad manners, I was just eating the Japanese way. By far though, my favorite part about eating here is the slurping; it is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. According to Japanese custom, the louder you slurp, the more appreciation you’re showing to the chef. I am continually amazed by the variety of foods the Japanese manage to slurp – noodles, salad, meat, anything. My theory to how they perform such a feat is that they literally inhale their food. By sucking in air while they eat, they simultaneously consume enormous amounts of food rapidly and produce that succulent slurping sound. Some of my students even finish their lunches before I’ve pulled out my chopsticks. No wonder the Japanese demolish every food eating contest.
(Note: In my many efforts to mimic this method, I have very nearly choked on my food. For your protection, any food inhalation attempts should be supervised by someone trained in the Heimlich maneuver)

The Japanese have very clearly defined outdoor and indoor shoes; outdoor for wearing outside and indoor for, well, inside. Pretty self-explanatory. I, of course, generally forget to bring my pair of indoor shoes to my schools. Whenever this happens, I have two choices. I can either draw more attention to my giant-sized feet (if that is even possible here) by wearing the school-supplied visitor slippers that leave a good 3 inches of my heel hanging off the end. Or, my preferred method, I make sure no one is looking, then quickly jump from the take-off-your-outdoor-shoes area to the put-on-your-indoor-shoes area. I’m pretty sure no one has caught on to my sneaky shoe secret yet, so shhh, let’s keep this between you and me. What I actually want to comment about in this section is the practicality in Japanese footwear, shoe-swapping aside. Because they know they will be indoors the majority of the day, the Japanese make sure they have comfortable indoor shoes. Therefore, I am surrounded by teachers in shirts and ties or blouses and skirts, all sporting loosely-tied Pumas, or even Reeboks with the straps (with the straps). As such, I have designated my auburn NSS “Nice Skate Shoes” as my official indoor shoes. Now, some of you have been calling these puppies ugly for the past four years. However, in Shichinohe Junior High School, I am applauded for choosing comfort over fashion. Well, maybe not applauded, but at least no one labels their color as “poo brown.” Wait, what’s “poo brown” in Japanese?

On a completely unrelated note, I just returned from a weekend-long soccer tournament in Nagano (about half the length of Japan from Shichinohe). Our Aomori team took an overnight bus and arrived Saturday morning for a full two days of soccer. Now, we’re a pretty athletic team; none of us are soccer pros or anything, but we can all at least kick a ball. As such, we thought we stood a fairly good chance in the tournament. Little did we know, 99% of all European ex-pats in Japan had signed up as well. To put it lightly, we got spanked. In six games of football, we scored 2 goals and had ten times that amount scored on us. It was a blast though, and in one weekend I was called a “lad,” “mate,” and even a “bloody wanka” when I ref-ed a game. Also, there was a tournament party Saturday night, and randomly in the middle of the dance floor, a group of Brits started breakdancing. I’ve never seen such moves, and if this is a standard occurrence at European parties, I need to make my way to London ASAP. Anyway, I arrived back in Shich around 4 a.m. this morning, and throughout the day, my students have given me bewildered looks as I limp half-asleep through the hallways. All in all, a solid weekend.

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