Friday 16 December 2011

7 Deadly Virtues – Part the Second

Previously, on This is How She Fight Start...


In last month’s exciting episode I said I’d explain myself on issues of equitable treatment. But this is a work in progress, and the vague framework I had mapped out is breaking down already. Yay me. So this time I won’t be talking about equality. No. This time I’ll be talking about Doraemon.

Try to contain your disappointment

Even though I teach mainly at senior high school, I use Doraemon a lot in my classes. Because if you use enough sarcasm teenagers will go for pretty much anything, everyone knows something about Doreamon, and he’s safe. Ask a Japanese 16-year-old what band he likes and there’s a good chance he’ll freeze, unwilling to express an opinion which will mark him out as uncool or ignorant of the latest trends.

I know the whole Japanese conformity thing probably exacerbates it, but this is much more to do with age than it is culture. Teenagers around the globe are frighteningly conservative. Even those who do rebel against the norm do so by joining another group with its own norms to adhere to. The only truly ‘individual’ person in any school is the slightly weird maths teacher who last bought a new shirt in the 1980’s and has questionable personal hygiene. He really doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks of him, and thus isn’t welcome at social gatherings.

I myself was roundly mocked as a teenager for my liking of the Top Gun soundtrack. My mistake was to do so sincerely; had I pretended to be ironic or sarcastic I’d probably have gotten away with it. These days of course Kenny Loggins is recognized as one of the late 20th Century’s greatest musical pioneers.

Who’s laughing now, bitches?

A couple of decades has been enough to invest the unquestionably heterosexual relationship between Maverick and Goose with a patina of retro-cool. Likewise, the few years since they stopped earnestly liking Doraemon is, on the massively compressed social timescale teenagers inhabit, enough to make him an acceptable subject on which to actually express an opinion. Any latent knowledge can be dismissed as a childish distraction; something to look back on indulgently now they are capable of appreciating the more sophisticated charms of Bump of Chicken.

Doraemon, for those of you who don’t know, is a blue robot cat from the future, with a 4th dimensional pocket and no ears (eaten by mice, you see).

“My cat’s got no ears!”
“How does he hear?”
“Awful! No, wait...”

You’ll note that I consistently refer to Doraemon as a ‘he’. The students make no such mistake, consistently writing things like, “It has dokodemodoa.” Doraemon’s a robot, so really ‘it’ is actually fine, but still sounds a little jarring. Occasionally they’ll actually ask me if it’s ‘it’ or ‘he’, and, not wanting to get into Turing Tests and the like, I'll try to explain that if something has a personality then ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the way to go. Then they’ll ask me if Doraemon is a boy or a girl. They fact they don’t know probably explains a lot.

Although not what exactly the dokodemodoa is.

It’s partly a linguistic thing. Japanese grammar does recognize subjects and objects, but very often normal usage will omit one or both altogether. Students will often be told to use ‘it’ if they’re unsure what to use as the subject of a sentence, which at times can get flat out creepy.

If nothing else it acts as a reminder of the way the world can be divided into objects and people. I’m not convinced by the whole Whorfian concept of linguistic relativity, so I wouldn’t read any more significance into it than that. But none-the-less it’s important that I occasionally remind myself that however badly, or however well, my students respond to me, they’re largely responding to what I am, not who I am.

Every year a few student-teachers will spend a couple of weeks training in school. There is very little age gap between them and the 3rd years, so the students will try it on, both in terms of insolence and flirtation. One of the least edifying things I’ve seen in a school was a couple of the cool girls coquettishly ask a male student-teacher his age. He was in conversation with his trainer at the time, but as soon as they’d finished he practically chased the girls down the corridor to tell them he was 22. In a way it was understandable; I’d be hard pressed to describe this guy as anything more than average, looks wise, and his personality wasn’t up to much either. This was probably the most attention he’d ever got from attractive females.

Even so, he was meant to be a teacher. Quite apart from the ethical issues, these girls were interacting with him based solely on his position and age. I didn’t have the heart to tell him they were just testing the boundaries; that you could stick a bucket of turds in front of a class and if it was sufficiently young some of the students would find a way to flirt with it.

I’m not entirely sure how that would work, to be honest. Probably best not to think it through too carefully.

It's in the index though, just after 'tumescence'

Obviously this response is more pronounced for me. In addition to my position, age and sex, the students also factor in my race and nationality. This usually gets you the first lesson for free; the students are so taken by the novelty of what you are that they’ll sit through any old crap. The novelty effect wears off fast, but the balance between what and who takes far longer to adjust.

It’s an occupational hazard. With the exception of some of the English Club members, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to have enough meaningful interaction with any individual student to progress much beyond the superficial. It’s also a coping mechanism to remind myself of this. It allows me not to take it personally when things go badly, and hopefully keep the ‘charisma man’ ego in check when things go well.

The hard part is when the what/who partition follows you into your personal life. I earn enough to deal with the fact that after a year of classes my students will still know more about Doraemon than they will about me. In fact a large part of my job is about helping them see foreigners in more human terms. But dealing with being an object is far harder when you’re not getting paid. And I don’t have a magic pocket to pull solutions out of either.

Next time – Equality. Maybe.

Credit where it's due.


  1. My understanding...via the kids is that it's a "he" because Doraemechan is clearly a "she".

    I think....?

  2. "Dealing with being an object is far harder when you're not getting paid." Indeed.

    What I find amusing is how much less it bothers me in my forties, back in Japan, than it did in my first residence, in my twenties. The conventional explanation, maturity, falls down if you meet me. I am also no longer getting the benefits of being treated like a (sex) object by 'Gaijin-hunters', or could not admit to it... If not giving a fuck about dehumanization by tiny minded and miserable people is maturity, then I'm there.

  3. Chris - Yeah, I'm pretty sure he's a 'he' as well. It just pulls me up every time I hear him referred to as 'it'. I was looking at the new editions of the JHS textbooks this week, and New Horizon has entire lesson revolving around 'Which is older, Astroboy or Doraemon?' It should be 'Who is...' surely?

    Ant - I wouldn't phrase it quite like that, but yeah, I'm definitely more self-confident now than during my first stint here too. It's that confidence which lets you put this stuff in it's proper place.

    Though as with the last bit of this series, it's not just idiots who do it, everyone does. It's just recognising it for what it is (on both sides) that's the problem.

    'Series'. Christ, get me and my pretensions...

  4. The flirting thing is funny. I only taught adults but got much more flirting from some of my students than I ever did on dates with Japanese guys.

  5. Conversely I've never taught adults, but some of my friends who have done eikaiwa said it sometimes felt that they felt like hostesses with cheaper drinks. Like they were getting paid to pay attention to people who might otherwise struggle to attract any. Don't know if that squares with your experience or not.

    With teenagers it really is all about testing the boundaries. If you think you're the shit because one of the yankee girls flashes her knickers at you, then you really need to re-evaluate how you interact with people. Yet every year there are a few idiots who don't realise that as teachers it's their job to impose the boundaries now.