Monday, 24 May 2010

More self-justifying ramblings of the perennial student

Back in October 2009, teaching at an English secondary school, I had absolutely no inkling that, little more than two months later, I would be coming to Japan to study Japanese full-time. Sure, it was a goal I had in the back of my mind, a plan for when the time felt right, but I didn’t expect the right time to come so quickly.

Coming to Japan was as much reaction as it was decision. I have an immense amount of respect for the school in question, and many of its staff, and feel fortunate to have trained there, but my exit was a thoroughly sour and stressful experience. Suffice it to say that, in leaving over an issue of principle, I followed my instinct. (I always go with instinct.) And then I followed my instinct to Japan.

The people who know me were supportive of the steps I took, both away and forward. Yet others may have worried on my behalf as to what this meant for my ‘professional future’. Oh .. the gap on the CV. Oh .. not continuing to hold down a permanent job.

But oh … how I hate to be worried over. They seemed more worried than I was. (At my age, with my family in another country?) Gasp. Maybe some idle tongues have continued to wag.

Well, I was always going to be fine. And, even if I wasn’t, I’d not be fine without regrets. Any perceived risks were risks I was content to embrace. I put in my shifts when I’m in employment, and will make hay when I’m out of it. (Take this literally: I taught my last few years in a windowless room.)

And even if this doesn’t match others’ ideals (of what I should be doing?), I think the take-it-and-leave it mentality, a kind of quid-pro-quo with the British world of work, becomes more socially acceptable with every passing year. (A welcome response to a culture in which no-one is immune from rising expectations of ‘productivity': just ask teachers who must annually defend their record with regard to so-called ‘value-added’ targets at ‘performance management’ meetings before committing to new targets, invariably for the sake of targets.) There is no law of nature that gap years and sabbaticals are once-in-a-lifetime events, any more than getting married -or divorced - are, for that matter.

(The fact that I am playing out this latest jolly in a socially conservative country where the ‘jobs for life’ mentality is ingrained, and whose people commonly postpone globetrotting and ‘dreams’ for retirement, is an irony which has not escaped me.)

So, here, a student again, I have refreshed my thinking, even if the workload and daily onslaught of tests and exams (two big ones today – I worry that I failed one) continue to run down my batteries. I have not been lying on a beach in Okinawa, or playing out delusional gaijin zero-to-hero fantasies in Japanese nightlife (as fun as that may sound). I’m in between jobs, but I don’t know where the next one will be. (England? Japan? Teach foreign languages to the English, or teach English to foreigners?) Ploughing on with French and German, though, in a new school, would have been a mistake. I needed a break.

So why Japan? Because, for all of the cynicism of my posts, it’s a society I admire. There’s also much I dislike about it – in fact, the more I learn (including of its language), the less I like it – but, as a tourist, as me, I enjoy being here. Services are reliable, standards are high, the food is great, people are respectful; regional differences are preserved and savoured; privacy is respected; noise, ‘attitude’ and brashness are not virtues. That was never the case on the top deck of the 111. Obviously, I also like how off-the-wall stuff is so everyday; I never tire of seeing or reading Japan reported in its full quirkiness. (For example, only this morning, breakfast TV was reporting on pet funerals, pet tombs and mobile pet crematoria as if it’s the most natural outlay for the average citizen - after language courses, that is).

What it is like to live here is another question – until I work in Japan, I doubt I can know what living here (as a foreigner, of course) really means. (What do I have give back? What part do I play in maintaining those standards? Am I prepared to give as well as take these services, the consistent excellence of which is taken for granted? )

Most obviously, I came for linguistic reasons. I had been learning romaji-Japanese in weekly evening classes for over a year, and wanted to take things a step further. My original motivation had been to have a go at a non-European (probably Asian) language, and – after my first visit in summer 2008- it was Japanese that grabbed me. Sure, it’s Mandarin Chinese and Spanish which are increasingly the in-demand languages in English schools, but that’s not a reason to want to learn them.

(Tamil seemed just too difficult - and I'd miss the sushi.)

 Tamil sushi?

The challenge of learning new scripts, a new visual dimension to language, requiring new approaches to self-study, also appealed. And despite my struggles with all of this, I've not been disappointed: like the best jigsaws (eh, Mrs B?), it keeps the brain occupied.

I have my highs and lows, my steps forward as well as my steps back, but I sincerely hope and believe that I will still be studying Japanese in five years, and beyond. (Hopefully I'll be able to write more than fifty kanji from memory by then, too.) It’s a labour of love - admittedly, a love which I fall in and out of (that's education, for you) - and I intend to complete the journey. In as much as I ever 'complete' journeys. Or labours of love.

So ... what's up next?

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