While working at the UCA Writing Center, Jonathan Dao came up with a weekly English conversation club geared toward Japanese speakers. Jonathan’s own interest in the culture was such that he spent several months anxiously waiting to hear if he would be accepted to the JET Programme. He was, and when I caught up with him this February, he’d been teaching in Japan for over two years in Toyama, Japan. Read on to hear why his learners don’t consider themselves students, how Jonathan combats isolation so far from home, and why one should never attempt the wave in a Japanese classroom.
Jonathan, you’ve been interested in Japan as long as I’ve known you. Has teaching English in Japan always been your goal? What attracted you to the Japanese culture?
I knew I wanted to work this for at least this length of time, if not more. To be honest, my roots in Japanese culture started out pretty nerdy with stuff like anime and games. But it’s from that point I started checking out other things. From anime songs to real pop songs. From pop songs to old folk songs. From games about samurai to a bit of actual folklore.
Toyama Travels in 2011
How much Japanese did you know upon arriving in the country? Don’t be modest, how much has your language improved during your stay?
My Japanese was crap. I took all that I could at my university, and while I loved the classes and teacher, I don’t think they prepared me that much. I’ve definitely got my language skills from being here and messing up. Each little mess-up has given me a story to ingrain the vocabulary. With that said, my Japanese is all over the place. My reading and writing is about on par with a Japanese baby. As for speaking and listening… I might not be able to catch 100% of what a sales clerk might be pitching, but I could walk into a bar and talk to just about anybody.
Wow, you’ve come a long way with speaking and understanding! When it comes to teaching, what age are your students?
I teach first through third grade at two senior high schools. Supposedly they’re smaller schools for my part of Japan, but compared to my own high school back in the states, they’re huge. The student body is over three-hundred students. My graduating class was just fifty something people back home…
How is the school system structured? (I.e. schedule, dress code, course offerings, extracurricular activities, etc.)
There are 6-7 periods depending on the day, which finish around 3:15 or 4:15. Afterwards, the homerooms split up to do cleaning duty. The uniform at both of my schools is practically the same: a dress jacket over a button up shirt with checkered pants or a checkered skirt. One school requires a tie/ribbon. At one school, they have a special agricultural course, with a special homeroom especially dedicated to agriculture studies in each grade. The other school has a business course which has its students studying abroad over winter break.
I feel like the kids here are pretty focused on their clubs here, just because that’s how it’s reinforced. Like back in the states, you could play baseball, soccer, tennis, AND football if you really wanted to. Every first year is required to participate in some sort of club, so there’s a handful who join English since it’s the least demanding. We only meet once a week for about an hour or so, whereas the other clubs meet nearly every day including weekends and holidays. But you know what? They love it. Most of my kids don’t think of themselves as students, but a “volleyball player” or a “chef”, you name it. They get a lot of variety to choose from: judo, wrestling, kendo, cooking, volunteer, science, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, and archery.
On your blog you mention that it’s not advisable to do the wave in a Japanese classroom. Why is this the case, and what other taboos have you encountered?
The reason the wave failed was because it was in my introduction class, and I was fighting against several cultural norms. I helped out in an English conversation group in college, which mainly had Japanese participants. I thought I was going in well-aware of how shy they would be, but I had underestimated it. The shyness I saw in university was from students who WERE interested in English so much that they decided to study abroad. So the shyness was now multiplied in an environment where they don’t have any say in what classes they choose.
It’s also very group-centered here. You don’t want to do things where you stand out, where someone has to take a good look at you. It’s also a very formal structure. They don’t have this concept of just trying without a fear of making a mistake. They either want something they can understand, practice, and do perfectly or they don’t want to even bother with it at all.
What tips do you have for aspiring ESL teachers who want to make it in Japan?
Anybody who really wants to teach over here, just come sharp. I think a lot of the problems I’ve seen with people who’ve struggled [are with] the people who come over here with some high and mighty expectations, they feel entitled. They might word it otherwise, but they’re pretty damn demanding. I think if you’re sharp with it, you’ll find the opportunity to do what you want. For instance, when I first started, they were kind of careful in how much responsibility they’d want to give me. I just had to find ways to prove myself, find the right timing, eventually the doors opened.
What do you do outside of school?
Outside of school, I mess around with music some, but I guess the big hobby is exercising. Wrapping up college I let myself blob, and it took a break-up to make me look in the mirror and see that, even though you can be happy with yourself no matter your condition, that’s no excuse not to take care of yourself. When I can, I hit the gym 6 days a week.
Visiting a temple in Kyoto in 2010
How do you deal with issues like loneliness and isolation so far away from friends and family?
Along those lines, the gym has been my biggest therapy. I think a lot of people agonize over things that are out of their hands. When you go and exercise, that’s all your doing. The aches and exhaustion, it’s all up to you how you’re going to handle it. It’s given me a lot of discipline, and it’s helped my mental state too. I can say I’ve become a way more positive person than I’ve ever been, and that just pushes me further. From the get-go I’ve wanted to be doing things that I could show off to friends and family back home, and everyday I’m becoming an even better me. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself.
From what you say it looks like KPOP, or pop music from Korea, is gaining popularity in Japan. What other aspects of foreign cultures have the Japanese embraced since you arrived?
Social media is getting huge. Twitter’s been on the rise for about a year or so, just because it’s anonymous and keeps things short. I’m not sure what exactly happened, but Facebook is now hitting a big boom too. In the beginning, Facebook really struggled because it’s a social media where you use your real identity and photos, whereas their big social media site mixi— it’s all anonymous and discreet.
Interesting! Spain has a comparable social networking site, too. So what do you love most about Japan?
The most? I don’t know, but one of the things I really enjoy is the awesome customer service with no tipping!
Dipping, not tipping
Let’s wrap up with a funny story from inside or outside the classroom.
There was this one kid who was in his senior year and had never had a girlfriend throughout his entire junior high and high school years. One day I see him celebrating in the cafeteria area with his buddies all drinking sodas. He yells at me, “JON I DID IT!”
So, I go over there and start talking to him, and I learn he got a girlfriend. Funny thing is, I know the girl he’s dating, a junior. Just last week she was telling me about some creepy upperclassman who’d always walk her to the station after school. I guess he won her over.
The next day I asked her about it, and sure enough, she was more than happy to blush and gush about him.
Fast forward a week later, I’m asking him about how the relationship’s going, and he just shakes his head and says, “We’re done already.”
Thinking that maybe he got dumped, I try to console him, but he takes it like a champ just saying, “She has problems.”
I’m nosy, so I head to her homeroom to see if I can get the full scoop, and I see her crying, surrounded by her friends. Through some eavesdropping, I hear, “He said he’s too poor to date me!”
A neighboring town during cherry blossom season–a popular picnic site
Ha, it’s never easy to be a teenager in love! To read and hear more about Jonathan’s time in Japan–complete with podcasts, UFO catchers, and musical spinnings–check out his blog, BlackJackJohnny. You can also follow ‘round twitter via @jonjiri.