Friday, April 28, 2006

How to be Popular in High School

Okay, I’ll admit it. I wasn’t exactly Prom King or Class President when I was in high school. I was more the quiz-team-and-chess-club quiet type, especially during my first two years. Oh, but I longed to be popular. I’d go to school dances and stand in some dark corner, secretly wishing to be slow-dance-necking with a cheerleader. I’d sit in the stands on Friday night football games and dream I was down there on the field, throwing touchdown passes and getting my name and picture on the front page of every Saturday paper in the fall.

My junior year, I decided to do something about it. I had about all the athletic ability of a watermelon, so the tried-and-true route to popularity in small town Ohio was definitely out. I began seeking alternate paths. I signed up for choir, joined more clubs, and got a part in the drama club’s fall play. What I lacked in athleticism and preppiness, I made up for in the shear quantity of my school activity involvement. By my senior year I was newspaper editor, president of a service club, and elected onto the student council. Still not exactly Prom King or quarterback, but it was a long way from the pimply freshman who didn't even know what table to sit at for lunch on the first day of high school.

It sure was a lot of work, though. I had fun, but along the way, some interests that were quite important to me but not so popular with my growing circle of high school friends got pushed aside. Ten years later, I finally discovered the secret of how to be popular in high school without even trying. It’s really quite simple for an American. All you have to do is graduate from college, move to Japan, and get a job teaching English at a Japanese high school. I finally completed that last step this month, and let me tell you, I’ve never been so popular in all my life!

The first day of classes at Hokusei High was Wednesday, April 12th. I found that I couldn’t take two steps in the halls without a dozen students yelling “hello” to me at the top of their lungs. Some of the girls are pretty shy and won’t initiate conversation, but if I speak to them, they quickly respond and then bust out giggling as soon as I’ve passed. More often than not, if I look over my shoulder in a crowded hallway or classroom, I’ll catch wandering eyes stealing a glance or even a stare.

I’ve found that I can even tell a joke here. Golden Week, a week-long holiday in Japan is next week, so we were discussing everyone’s plans in my Oral Communication classes this week. After telling one class about my plans, I moved on to a short listening exercise. I read a simple conversation of eight lines between myself and another teacher. The students had the same conversation on their worksheets, but missing six words. They had to listen and fill in the blanks with the correct words.

I made my first reading at a normal speed, just like I was talking to another native speaker. Maybe even a little bit faster. As I expected, this produced 13 silent, bewildered stares from my 13 students.

“Okay?” I asked the class confidently.

The stares continued. I think a couple of students may have even tried to look more bewildered, if that were possible. Finally, one girl in the back tentatively raised a hand.

“Again?” she pleaded in a small voice.

“Okay,” I agreed. “Faster or slower?”

A couple of her classmates joined in entreating “slower, slower!”

“Okay. Is everyone ready?” Scattered nodding. “H-h-e-e-e-y-y-y S-c-c-o-o-o-t-t-t-t, w-w-h-h-a-a-a-a-t-t a-a-r-r-r-e-e y-y-o-o-o-u-u-r-r-r p-p-l-l-a-a-a-n-n-s-s-s…” By this point, several students were giggling.

“Too slow?” I asked with a grin.

Another girl looked at me warily. “American joke?” she asked.

“Yes, yes,” I smiled, “American joke!” The whole class burst out in wild laughter.

It’s not always that easy, though. With another class, I tried “The Handshake Game,” a simple (or so I thought) game where the class sits in a circle. I turn to my right, shake the student’s hand and state, “This is a handshake.”

The student is supposed to ask, “A what?”

To which I repeat, “A handshake.”

The student then turns to the next person and repeats. After a couple more exchanges, I introduce a new gesture, like a high-five, a smile, or a wink. Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen. It took several minutes to explain the basic premise of the game, with several confused looks and pleads of “wakkanai” (I don’t understand) from the girl sitting beside me. We eventually managed to pass a handshake around the circle a couple of times, then I moved onto to high five.


“Low!” I held my hand close to the floor.

“High!” I held my hand above my head.

“One, two, three, four, FIVE!” I counted on my fingers.


Look of deepest contemplation.

“Low! High! One, two, three four, five! Highfive!”

The lightbulb goes on and we give it a try. Halfway around the circle, another girl turned to the boy beside her and declared, “This is a five hand!”

I gave my forehead a hard “high five” with my right hand.

A couple days later, though, one of the boys asked me when we were going to play the handshake game again. “Next week,” I promised. That time, we got four different gestures all the way around the circle in a little over two minutes.

I’m lucky that I’m so popular by my very nature, and luckier still that I’m I didn’t grow up here as a shy, intellectual boy secretly dreaming of popularity. In a Japanese high school, my method for gaining popularity would have never worked. At the end of the first day of classes, I went to a student body assembly where all the high school clubs and sports teams demonstrated their activities for the entering class of first-year students (sophomores). Each club and team was assembled in the rear of the gym, where they sat together until it was time for their demonstration. As the presentation continued, I began to notice that no students were moving from one club or sports team to another. The students here are involved in one club, and one club only.

But what if you like both art and karate? Pick one (and only one). Want to be a multi-sport athlete? Forget it. Ever wondered what goes on in an English club meeting? If you’re in the badminton club (or any other club, for that matter), you’ll just have to keep wondering. The promotion of broad, diverse interests has no place in a society still intent on producing the kind of specialized factory workers that brought the world Toyotas and Hondas that run for 200,000 miles and more.

I know what you might be thinking now. “But Scott,” you’re thinking, “soccer season only lasts a couple of months. Can’t those kids do something else for the rest of the year?” Ah, if only that were the case. But no, in Japan, soccer is a year-round sport. All of them are. One of the English teachers at Hokusei is also coach of the soccer club, which won the Hokkaido tournament last year.

“How often do the kids practice?” I asked him.

“Oh, every day!” My question seemed to surprise him.

“And how often do they have games?” I continued, undeterred.

“Three big tournaments every year, plus training games.”

“How many training games?”

“About a hundred.” That’s two games a week. Every week.

During the drive to Ikeda to ride the Chihoku Line, I had discussed with Dustin and Judy the “otaku” phenomenon in Japan. “Otaku” is one of those words that doesn't quite have a direct English translation, but “freak” is a relatively close approximation. As a rail-enthusiast, I could be considered a “densha otaku” in Japanese. “Train freak.” However, it would seem my passion might be a little low key by Japanese standards. There are many different kinds of “otaku,” and almost all of them spend nearly every free minute of their adult lives dedicated to the pursuit of one interest, and one interest only. Dustin and Judy told me of artists who might spent 30 years perfecting a single sculpture of Buddha, of gardeners who spend a lifetime meticulously arranging the stones and pruning the trees of their tiny gardens. How such specialized, lifelong interests could arise suddenly made sense during the high school club presentations.

To the English teacher, such thinking producers a real challenge. Students become such a part of their activity, and their activity becomes such a part of them, that they have trouble describing it. Think of your commute to work everyday. The first few times, maybe you noticed the faces of the kids walking on the sidewalk, the gaudy billboard beside the road, the boarded up restaurant halfway between your home and your office. But make that commute everyday for a year, for five years, for 10 years, and then let me ask you about your commute. I bet you’d tell me that it takes 25 minutes, maybe the route number, and not one thing more. Such is the response I get from asking students about their club activities.

“Kana, do you play any sports?”

“Yes! I’m in the tennis club.”

If I wait to hear more, I might as well be waiting to hear from a turnip. There is nothing more. Kana has probably played tennis for half her life. She practices everyday, and goes to four big tournaments every year. But there’s no reason for her to tell me any of this. It’s so much a part of her life that she takes the details for granted. Furthermore, as was explained by Terry, the other native English teacher at Hokusei, the structure of tennis club is the same for every other high school student in Japan as it is for Kana. If Kana goes to four tournaments every year, you can bet that every other high school tennis club member in Japan goes to four tournaments every year. If Kana has practice at 3:15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 4:15 on Mondays and Wednesdays, it’s a decent bet that most other high school tennis club in Japan practice at about those same times. There is absolutely no reason for Kana to divulge the details of her tennis club involvement, since everyone else in Japan already know the details of tennis club.

It doesn’t stop there. The second lesson for my second year (junior) classes was about family. First question: Who do you live with? The majority of the students in both classes answered simply, “I live with my family.” Only with continued prodding did I get any details, but then they ranged from “my mother and my father” to “my mother, grandmother, and younger sister,” to “my mother, my father, my two younger sisters and my two older brothers.” I didn’t stop there. Like the miner seeing the first flash of something shiny at the end of a dark tunnel, I kept digging. “Your mother and father, what are their names?” Looks of horror greet me. “What are their names?” Finally the answers come, slowly and timidly. Discovering their occupations takes every bit as much effort, and I’m exhausted at the end of class.

My mother, who’s been an elementary school teacher since before I was born, often tells me that she feels like a full-time cheerleader in class everyday. I’m finally beginning to understand that, and sometimes the fatigue, combined with my coming from such a different background, causes slips in the classroom. I caught myself a little too late when I suggested to one class that they include in their descriptions of a family member the color of that person’s hair. Not so many options for that here.

Yet the stories are so different, and beneath the matching uniforms and identical schedules, my students are as unique and different as any other group of 16 year olds anywhere in the world, and that individuality shines out in their faces, in their hair styles, in their colorful shoe laces, designer pencil cases, cell phone ornaments, and nearly every place else it’s given the opportunity to do so.

“Marina, where did you go for spring vacation?” I asked a cute second-year girl in the front row of one class.

“I went to Otaru,” she answered in a quiet, sweet voice.

“Oh, Otaru is very beautiful! How did you go there?”

“I went by train.”

“I like that train ride! I enjoy looking at the ocean.”

“Me, too!” she beamed at the connection we shared.

Maybe that’s why I’m so popular here. I’m so obviously different from everyone else, yet there are still things we have in common. I think for the students, behind their shyness and downcast eyes, they are incredibly excited to see someone so different from them, and even more excited at the prospect of having something in common with me.


M.J. said...

This brought back many vivid memories of the time I spent in Japan. Nearly every American living there has, at one time or another, taught English. Most often converstational English. There are simply no direct translations for so many concepts that differ in our countries...and literal translations of idioms bring real consternation (and often hilarity). A drop in the bucket. Back seat driver. It's raining cats and dogs.

Your examples illustrate and highlight cultural differences that are often seemingly too wide to bridge. Communication is key. That's why what you're doing will be rewarding.

Anonymous said...

Wow, very interesting. :) I felt obligated to leave a comment after reading that. :)