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Sunday, Oct. 24, 1999

JAPAN LITE

Who needs coffee when you've got kids around?


On Saturdays I volunteer at the Shiraishi Island Kindergarten, where I teach English at high volume. That's because Japanese kindergarten students are taught to shout everything in unison. So, a simple "good morning" becomes "GOOD MORNING!" Multiply that by 15 students and it's kind of like an alarm clock.

However, this could be handy if any of these students should ever travel to the United States, where people speak English much louder than in other countries. In the U.S., even if someone is in the same car with you, you still have to shout. This is because in the U.S., holding a conversation is done simultaneously while doing something else more important, such as ordering an Egg McMuffin at the drive-through window while listening to your favorite CD. Conversation is something that happens accidentally. I also suspect that Americans are born with megaphones implanted under their tongues that are automatically turned on when they sit down at a table in a restaurant.

But if my kindergartners are any indication of the future, soon Japan will no longer be a country where you can walk into a room of 100 people and hear a pin drop. Nor will you be able to walk into a restaurant and hear the entire conversation of the American sitting across the room. Instead, you'll hear "GOOD MORNING!"

People often ask me why I volunteer at the kindergarten. It's not that I enjoy screaming children. Nor is it that I have a lot of free time. It's simply this: I need God points. You see, I have this underlying fear that when I die, I may go to hell. I've had this fear ever since I read Dante's "Inferno" in high school. So if I volunteer to teach Japanese children English, maybe God will see me for the person I really am -- an English teacher -- and send me to heaven. So I'm committed to teaching these high-volume English classes and coming home with a headache. But at the end of the day, I know I really deserved those God points.

At first, teaching kindergartners was hard for me because I wasn't used to being around children. In my house, it is not normal for people to walk around trailed by a string of snot. Nor is it normal, if everyone is sitting together singing a song, for everyone to suddenly get up and run out of the room to see a pretty butterfly they spotted outside the window. My English for the first year was limited to "HEY!" and "COME BACK HERE." On particularly difficult days, I doubled my God points.

The students like to play the game "Simon Says." When I say, "Simon says, put your hands on your knees," they shout out, "NIKU!" (meat), a similar sounding word in Japanese, while putting their hands on their knees. "No, not niku," I correct them, "Nikus."

When I say, "Put your hands on your tummy," they giggle because this is a very sensitive spot for Japanese children. When they hear thunder, they cover their stomach to make sure the devil doesn't come down and take it away. When I say, "Put your hands on your hips," they yell "SENBEI!" (rice cracker). I don't know why.

The students know their numbers very well. So well that sometimes I wonder if they aren't playing tricks on me. One student, Ai, has excellent pronunciation and a very loud voice. We usually count all together aloud: one, two, three, four, five, six. But, Ai-chan always shouts: "One, two, three, four, five, SEX!"

After a couple of years, I asked the school if I could teach the kindergartners more often. It wasn't just for the God points either -- I was really enjoying teaching them. But the school said there wasn't enough time in the kindergarten curriculum for more English classes.

This year, there are only six kindergartners. I thought this would be a great advantage since the students could learn faster in a smaller, less chaotic class. But for the Japanese, it would be a waste to teach English to only six students. Therefore, the school decided to have me teach the elementary school and kindergarten together. Since this would require two classes (21 students each) and more work for me, they told me to teach only one Saturday a month. I told them I'd come more often, but they said there wasn't enough time in the curriculum for more free English classes.

I've decided to give all my God points to the Japanese Ministry of Education. I think they're going to need them more than I.

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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