Feb 8

Adventures of a Stealth Gaijin: “E is for Elementary School” by Ann Chow

Adventures of a Stealth Gaijin

By Ann Chow (ALT, Hyogo-ken, 2007-2009), a New York City-based JET alum currently seeking copy editing/proofreading/production editing jobs in news or book publishing.  Email jetwit [at] jetwit.com if you would like to get in touch with her.

E is for Elementary School

E is for elementary school.

Elementary school in Japan is for students between the ages of 6-12, and they are easily spotted by the backpacks, called randoseru, that they carry. Sometimes, they wear sailor uniforms. Sometimes, they don’t. My students didn’t.

When I first arrived in Japan, the BoE I worked for told me I would be working at 2 junior high schools and 3 elementary schools. It was pretty standard for the ALTs working in my town, and I had no complaints except that one of my elementary schools was clear across town, 35 minutes or so by bike, and I wasn’t the ALT who lived closest to it.

Sometime in December of my first year there, I was told I would have to visit another elementary school. There was already another ALT who visited, but the teachers wanted extra lessons, so they added me on to the roster. On my first visit to that school, I was running late because I realized the main entrance to the school wasn’t on the main road, but on a back street behind the sports field and a construction site for new housing. It really didn’t help that they were fixing the roads too, which meant extra gaijin traps. Aside from the near lateness and overall anxiety I was experiencing from almost falling into an unexpectedly large gaijin trap (doubled in size from road renovations), nothing special happened. I taught my usual number of classes (complete with jikoshokai), some of the teachers offered me tea/coffee during breaks, I ate with the students during kyushoku, and some students thought it was strange I was this “Japanese” girl who spoke English but didn’t have any real command of Japanese.  It was a normal day.

My next visit was the following day. On a rather sunny, but cold December morning, I managed to get myself to this school for the second day in a row, and well beyond on-time. However, at that hour of the morning, I still preferred to sit in my corner at my gray metal desk, surrounded by the dirty gray and crumbling walls of the school, blending in with (or being ignored by) the other Asians in the room. It’s really easy when one is a stealth gaijin. (Too easy. By the time I rotated out of working at that school, I had only talked to four or five teachers and a very, very nosy school aide.)

My day proceeded normally and after my lessons, I went to a classroom to eat lunch with the students. Afterwards, while the students cleaned up, I went back to the staff room like usual. As I walked down the hall, a teacher followed me. I didn’t think she was following me specifically, just that she, like me, was going back to the staff room after lunch.

Within five seconds of entering the room, she started asking me “Doushitan? Doushitan?” in a concerned tone. I could understand she was asking “What’s the matter?” but I wasn’t quite sure how to answer her because, one, my Japanese was not good enough and, two, there was nothing wrong. I stared up at her blankly and repeated “Doushitan?” Then she asked if I was the new ALT.  She went from looking concerned to looking embarrassed as I answered “Hai…” and realized I was NOT a student.  This conjecture was confirmed about five minutes after the mishap when she told another teacher about it in front of me.

I have to say, they don’t look that great, but sometimes, I’m all for the sailor suits on those kids just so they don’t think I’m one!

While the teacher was asking me what was wrong for the third time, the faint thought of, “I was stopped by cops once when I was in college because they thought I was a high school student cutting school,” did cross my mind. The thought of being mistaken for an actual 12-year old did not.

Looking like a 12-year old even though I’m well out of college is probably me being optimistic about the situation. Don’t forget the under-12 crowd! ^_~

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