Thursday, 1 July 2010

Speed debating whaling

We are led from the taxis into a room with six tables, each with a bottle of mineral water and a welcome sheet. We have not had to sign in or undergo security checks. Our instructions tell us to wait here. Shortly we will be collected by students who will take us to their classroom. There, at 10-minute intervals, we will rotate around the six groups of seven or eight chuugakusei (junior high school students) and "discuss with the students", in English, a topic I know little about: whaling. Our host teacher tells us they want to know "how the foreigner thinks".

We can expect most, if not all, of the Japanese, to be pro-.  They expect us, the monolithic foreigner, to be anti-. One of us is from Singapore; another from New Zealand. Oh, and there's that up-himself Brit too. (The other three students who have made today's trip will go to another classroom to discuss 'foreign culture'. They are all Americans.)

The Antipodean, also a teacher, has researched the topic at length and brought pages of notes. She knows her stuff and reels off a list of issues such as health concerns relating to mercury poisoning which I am unfamiliar with. These students had better not be too good at English. I am going to blag it - my sympathies lie with the whale, although I am aware this exposes a stack of hypocrisies, not the least being my regular consumption of other majestic, sentient sea creatures (the tuna, the namako ...) .

A further complication is that I am just getting over a hangover, which accompanied me through an exam this morning, and am hoping the mints will work their magic as I (re-)cut the figure of the reflective practitioner for the first time in six months.

After short introductions from the front of the class (which many of the 45 or so students present ignore or talk over - have I lost my classroom authority so quickly?), in our best, basic Japanese, we begin the speed-debating. My first two tables are hard going; they don't seem to listen to one another and I even have to speak some Japanese, which - as it's me - is rather unflattering to them. I can't even remember the Japanese for 'whale'. Not that they seem to mind; on hearing my stop-start pedestrian sentences, they show more interest.

I wonder: am I here for my 'foreign opinions' or my English? There's a whiff of indifference in the air. (I expected shyness; is this its disguise here?) Most have written up their opinions in advance but many of the students' prep-sheets seem to be in Japanese. We do a quick thumbs-up check around the table; with one exception, they are all pro-. But little discussion follows.

Having whittered on in short sentences to little effect about the need to question tradition, man's status as 'king of the jungle' and the reponsibilities this entails, as well as the highly sophisticated intelligence of the whale you Japanese like to eat, and waved my hands pointlessly whilst circulating teachers take photos, I am twice rescued by the 10-minute bell. Move on to the next partner, oops, group, please. This isn't going great. I have had no ticks, sorry, I mean discussions, so far. I used to be a teacher, you know.

Then again, isn't this more than a little challenging for the junior high-schoolers? Most of the students are fourteen years old. And my experience of 14-year olds is that they rarely have opinions on such matters, and those that do may struggle to argue them in their own language. (This, in a country where expressing opinions is rarely the purpose of conversation, and may often seem impolite.) Have they even heard the pronunciation of most of the topic-specific vocabulary they would like to be able to use today? I doubt it. I doubt they even know that vocabulary. So no wonder there's this sense of 'stage fright': language is a performance, and that applies to my Japanese classes too.

I can't help wondering if the Americans got the better deal.

Things become more interesting at the third and fourth tables. For a start, they all listen and all talk a little. Noticeably, the girls tend to have the best English. One or two really give it a go and speak well. Here, the discussion seems to go somewhere at last.

The overwhelming view is that hunting for whales is part of Japanese tradition, and tradition should be respected. In response, I am reduced to simplistic analogies in support of the argument that traditions are not intrinsically good. What would they think if eating dog, a creature less intelligent than the whale (but, to the Japanese I suspect, far more sentient), was an English tradition? They listen politely. Some translate to their friends. Analogy might not be part of Japanese debating tradition. And someone might just be telling their parents tonight that the English traditionally eat dogs.

I ask: have they eaten whale before? Most have, once or twice. Then they surprise me: they even have it on the school lunch menu occasionally, I'm told. It's not a joke. I wonder why I'm here. Revolution is not in the air. Japan will still be whaling for decades to come.

We round off the visit with short, simple conversations in Japanese, pose for a classroom photo, say our goodbyes. The boys stand behind my chair; the girls behind the female visitors. Tonight, it's Denmark v Japan on TV, I'm thinking.

In the taxi back, we discuss how it went. My colleagues are complimentary and generous in their praise of the students' English. I keep quiet; my impressions were mixed. What did I get wrong, I wonder. Damned by my high expectations? Blame my training for that.

One more day in Okazaki.

1 comment:

  1. Hahahaha was it really that bad? They are kids, afterall. And NO the Americans didn't get the better deal. We had a choice. I knew from the beginning that was a very difficult topic to debate especially with youngsters that barely speak english! And why did you never mention a hangover on test day??? LOL

    Still you passed almost flawlessly..... right? hehe