At the risk of sounding a little self-important, sometimes being an English teacher is about teaching more than just the language. And week by week, I’m finding that to be truer than ever here in Japan.
Yesterday, I set up what I thought would be a fun little game for my class. The concept was simple – describe countries without saying the name of the country itself. Other students guess the country. I’ve had fun with this in this past – it gives rise to all sorts of silly stereotypes and funny collocations people make between places and certain characteristics, foods, clothes and so on.
In my class, it gave rise to blank faces, silence and an air of general confusion. A painstaking ten minutes ensued in which I tried to elicit something, ANYTHING, about various countries across the world. Nothing obscure here, we’re talking United States, England, China. This – for once – was not an issue about lack of vocabulary. This was plain and simple lack of knowledge, about anything from capital cities to famous foods.
Granted, I teach girls in their late teens, to whom geography doesn’t rank high on the list of most important things but, come on, the United States? Fast food, Hollywood, guns, obesity – I would have taken any level of political incorrectness as long as it brought some English. They could have called the Irish a bunch of mass-going, potato-munching, whiskey-drinking farmers and I would have jumped for joy. Now I have taken it upon myself to attempt to teach these girls about other countries if it kills me.
It’s not just basic geography that’s important, it’s behaviour too: that it’s encouraged to ask questions, give information and actually converse in other cultures, not just give yes and no answers; that no one will hear you if you speak with your head down and at a volume that requires a hearing aid; that to giggle excessively when someone is speaking to you can come across as rude.
On a personal level, there are one or two students of mine who I would love to realise that there is more to life than hair and clothes – even that there are other countries outside of their own, which every nationality can be guilty of ignoring at times. They could think about their future, their careers, places to travel and things to see.
But it’s all about knowing your limitations and Martin Luther King I am not. The only dream I have is that these girls think of men in berets with onions around their neck when they think of France or men in sombreros when they think of Mexico. And so in tomorrow’s class, I’m going in armed with an atlas.