Awkward at Best

February 27th, 2013By Category: Teaching in Japan

Originally, when arriving at my school, I was like a rock-star. Students would scramble to get a look at me, or hang out of windows to get a “Hello!” Those who had more yaruki (doing spirit) than others, would run up and try to say in broken English various points about my appearance.


Whether it was a chorus of kawaii’s (cute) or “eyes blue,” they always had a new observation. Some would even touch my curly hair or (in one case) go as far as to touch my nose. If you’ve never had the delight of working with Japanese children, you’re missing out.

You see, as Japan is one of the most homogeneous populations on the planet, it’s no wonder I catch people staring at me daily with that deer-in-headlights look. Is it the freckles? The blue eyes? The curly hair? I can’t tell. Lucky for me, Japanese kids don’t have the same reservations as Japanese adults, and are willing to point out these differences.

“Jeshika! Nose…. tall!”
“Jeshika! (Touching my hair) fluffy!”
“Jeshika! Tall!”
“Jeshika! Sexy!” …. sigh

The constant barrage of comments is humorous on most days. No matter how many times they’ve seen me, there is always something new to notice. If you’re a big (5’3″), scary foreigner like me, you may have heard the “tall nose” comment before. They find this a good quality. Of course, my first reaction was to cry in a corner with my Greek ancestors about our chiseled noses.

Another fun part of my relationship with the students is their constant belief that I don’t, couldn’t possibly understand Japanese. Funnily enough, I can understand most of what they are saying, especially when they are discussing how to ask in English “do you like comics.” Just for my own enjoyment, I’ll spend an entire lunch with them in silence only to translate the words they are debating about randomly.

“What’s ‘natsu’ again in English?”

This is always the point where they exchange shocked, she-understands-everything-we’ve-been-saying looks. Yes, I now know that you like Megumi in class 3 and think the pop group AKB48 is hotter than KARA.

More baffling, is the fact that no matter how many conversations we hold in the hallway in Japanese, they don’t believe I can speak it. To be fair, this constantly elicits compliments when I say simple phrases like arigatou to them.

“Oh! Jeshika-sensei, your Japanese is so good!”
“Uh… yea, thanks.”

Then there are the student-sensei’s who like to point at various objects around the room and tell me what it is in Japanese.

“Isu (chair)”
(Clapping and kawaii’s)

But undoubtedly, the strangest part of it all, is the odd questions. Every ALT gets these. I’ve heard some real good ones. I usually get asked to translate a whole slew of dirty words, which I reply to with “I don’t speak Japanese.” It’s always really entertaining when they manage to learn a really dirty phrase and teach it to the others who then whisper it when I hand them papers. And by entertaining I mean horribly annoying. For the good kids, it’s a constant barrage of “Do you live alone? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you married? Do you have kids?”

Thank you, for always reminding me that I’m alone.

Although, when it’s all said and done, despite constantly feeling like a bug in an observation tank, I wouldn’t change it. It’s awkward at best and they can’t seem to remember which country I am from, but you know what? That’s what makes my job so fun and varied. I can never ever guess what they are going to come up with next. You don’t know strange English until you’ve taught middle school students.


Author of this article

Jessica Damerst

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  • エジプト人 says:

    You make it sound like it’s fun…. I thought teaching kids was a recipe for disaster.

  • Guest says:

    Its amazing how Japanese sometimes seem to think that somehow foreigners were only ever on TV and not actually real people that exist somewhere lol

  • Jessica Damerst says:

    Aw, that’s amazing! Yea, I love every minute I spend with these kids, they are the reason I love the job 🙂

  • leslie nguyen says:

    Haha to your last sentence. The joy of teaching…

  • usolee says:

    Enjoy your days in the classroom Jeshikasensei, they are golden. Today one of my 4th grade girls gave me a letter. It was one she wrote on her own accord. She knows I’m leaving this year and thanked me for teaching her for the past 4 years. She went on to say how she’s looking forward to being able to spend our last term – her first term as a 5th grader – together… these unexpected moments are the most memorable, right?


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