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Saturday, May 29, 2010

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

An ode to aging English teachers


"I haven't lost a beat," he tells me.

"He" being an old friend. The adjective is qualified by both his appearance and our years of association. He sports gray hair, wrinkles, bifocals . . .

And what he has really lost is his way of life.

"It's the economy," I say back. "Times are hard."

That's a tidy excuse. But what's bugging him is something different . . .

The thought that, after years of teaching English in Japan, he might — just might — be over the hill. For he can't draw students like he used to.

"But I can still say, 'Repeat after me.' And I can ask good questions too. Like . . . 'How was your weekend?' Or . . . 'What did you eat for lunch?' Plus my joke repertoire has been breaking ice for decades."

He pauses. "Ever hear about the shrink who opened an office with a proctologist? They called it . . . 'Odds and Ends!' "

He roars — by himself. And when his laughter dies away, he says with icy awareness. "Just what has gone wrong?"

I avoid giving him an answer. For he is seeing what we all see sooner or later. The end. And, not so oddly, he can't accept it.

What do you do when you can't do what you've always done? Especially when you're an outside resident with limited options?

"But I can still speak English. And if I can speak English, then what more can students want? It's not like I'm forgetting. I mean, have you ever heard me mix up 'L & R'?"

"You mean 'R & L'?"

He gasps. Then sees I'm kidding.

"Don't tease me. Sometimes things happen. Like last week I told my class the story of my first year in Japan twice — in the same hour."

And before I can speak, he adds . . .

"It's a great story, too. Have you heard it?"

I have. But that won't stop him.

"I was two years out of high school, I wore bellbottoms, and my hair was shaggier than a sheepdog's. I didn't have any degree, any experience, any anything, and people would pay me money just to sit there and talk about whatever was in my head — the weather, baseball, Raquel Welch, anything. I didn't have to prepare. I didn't have to think. All I had to do was open my mouth."

"It was the best job in the world. I got paid for just 'speaking my native tongue.' And paid by everybody too — businessmen with company budgets, housewives in need of a hobby, parents hoping I could make their kids bilingual. The money burned through my fingers. I'm surprised I don't have scars."

He shows me one hand. All I see are age spots.

The years surprised him too. He taught everywhere but finally settled down, married, and opened his own neighborhood classroom, with offerings for both adults and children. It went well. Both his days and his coffers were full. Until the bubble burst.

"But I survived." By "I," he means "we." For his wife's job carried him until the classes — somewhat — rebounded.

"And they will now too!"

But can bravado overcome Father Time?

"I think the real problem is the kids these days," he says. "They just don't know what's good. I mean, there's this younger guy two stations down, got his own little school. He teaches song lyrics from Lady Gaga and so on, and the kids flock there. But I do the same with Bob Dylan. Tell me, who is better? Gaga or Dylan? You're a man of the world."

But I am not a 15-year old kid.

"Or maybe it's the parents' fault. They can't see quality. They prefer a bottle of Boone's Farm over a selection of fine aged wine."

Or maybe they see that the bottle is dry.

"Ever think of slowing down? You know . . . Kicking back and sniffing the roses?"

"Quit?" he says "Me? But why quit when you've still got it?"

By "it," I think he means his mortgage.

"I'm not finished yet. Not by a long shot."

But he once lucked into the perfect situation. People paid for his services when he had no true services to offer. And he milked that into a living. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other gaijin did the same. But things changed. It's time to appreciate the good run he had.

"But it isn't done! And now that I've got experience, I am a priceless commodity!"

Who will work for pocket change.

"I like little kids the best. I can teach 'Bow Wow' and 'Oink Oink.' And the ABC song never gets old."

Not like the rest of us.

"But the kids don't get my jokes. Say, you ever heard about the shrink who opened an office with a proctologist?"

"Um . . . Odds and Ends?"

He nudges me. "No! Nuts and Butts! See? I've still got it! Right?"

But the room fills with shadows, not echoes.

"Right?" he says again.

And the clock ticks on.



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