TEFL Success Stories – Part 37

Nick – Japan

Information travels light, and information worth knowing even faster than that. At a junior high school, the speed at which interesting news can be disseminated is often astounding. When I first arrived at my school, a squat concrete pill box aside a barren clay field, surrounded by rice paddies, murky concrete canals and ancient wooden houses, the first thing I was asked to do was write a simple self-introduction to deliver to the students. It was ridiculously rote – both the task itself as well as the short speech I finally decided on.

The teachers had guessed that I would still be too tired from the trip here to play any kind of games. Too bewildered by the mountain of bureaucracy down which my body had been thrown before even stepping foot in the country to get straight into a serious lesson. They were right, of course. I was supposed to produce something about myself using English easy enough for the students to understand, or at least easy enough so they could scrabble about the edges of what I was trying to get across.

It should have been simple, but for hours I sat in front of my work computer, stared at the screen and tried to think about something interesting to say about myself. It was like a delirious torture. I had no serious sporting aspirations and no interests to speak of, at least none that I thought would seem genuinely interesting to a twelve-year-old. My only real hobbies were drinking and smoking, and while that was going to work out well for the staff parties, even as mentally disengaged as I currently was, I was well aware it wasn’t going to do anything for my current audience. In the end, my introduction was so banal, short and lacking in any real substance, that even without knowing what the consequences might be, I genuinely feared for the outcome of the lesson.


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I was wrong to have worried. Or to have even spent any time working on my introduction at all. As it turned out, the only thing I needed to say, the only piece of information that the students latched onto from the small grove of less interesting facts I had plastered about it, was that I liked reading.

“What do you like to read?”

I didn’t answer right away. What was I supposed to say to that? Years ago, when I’d finished my bachelor’s degree, one of the fields I had specialized in was English literature. I liked reading a lot of different things, but that wasn’t to say I could necessarily start to list the names of my favourite authors to the children, for whom Henry James or Joseph Conrad were meaningless if not probably indistinguishable. Instead, I thought I’d go for something they had a better chance of being familiar with.

“Well, I like to read manga”.

It was a mistake. I knew it immediately, the way their ears pricked up. Half the eyes in the room lit up and the other half narrowed into suspicious dark lines.

“Manga …” one of the students began cautiously, and then, “… What about anime?”

I nodded, “Yeah, I watch that too.” And I do, though to acknowledge it was a mistake.

I’m of that particular generation for whom cartoons are a legitimate literary medium, breakfast cereal a legitimate dinner, comics serious business. I had studied 18th-century classics in university, but that didn’t mean I valued Spiegelman any less than Swift. I didn’t at all stop to think that, of all the people for whom this would carry some kind of associated stigma, it would be children, the ones ostensibly for whom these things had been designed. They looked at each other, spun in their seats to renegotiate their thoughts, and came to a common conclusion.

“You’re not an otaku*, are you?”

News had already spread by the time I came to my next class. I went through my introduction without having made any changes from the first time. This time, though, the first question I fielded jumped straight to the point.

“Are you an otaku?”

The pattern repeated itself. By the end of the week, I’d been asked in each class on each of the three floors. While I could readily deny it to the students, the general joy that they took in asking me made it increasingly harder for those denials to hold any kind of credibility. Warily I answered questions about my favourite cartoons, my favourite characters, the comics I’d been reading lately. Each time I answered with the slightest degree of knowledge, or mentioned something they knew about, their faces lit up gleefully. Even when I answered with something they had never heard of, it was only taken as even more irrefutable proof of my obvious superiority on the topic. It was as though I were a professor, talking to a crowd of enthralled first-year university students, rattling off the names of obscure musicians or poets that

Even though in the middle of it I was a little concerned about the lasting repercussions, I also managed to start convincing myself that sooner or later this would be forgotten. It was only the start of the school year and, no doubt, before long the students would be too busy to worry about my private life. I was wrong about that too. Students don’t just forget things, especially things like that. As it turned out, these events would echo behind me for months. On some level I must have known this from the beginning, but only at the beginning of the next week did it become tangibly apparent to me.

While I was walking down the corridor of the second floor to the first class of the day, a boy in the middle of a small crowd walking in the opposite direction caught sight of me, and his face opened up into a ridiculously enthusiastic smile.

“Hey! Good morning Otaku Teacher!”

And just like that, I had been christened.

*otaku – a term used to refer to people with obsessive interests, particularly anime, manga or Japanese video games


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