Thursday, September 20, 2007

My Summer Vacation

September spells the end of freedom for students, and the beginning of grading My Summer Vacation journals if you’re an English teacher at Shin Gakko. Back in June I asked Egg Man, the department chair, what assignment we should give our ESL charges over their six week break.

“You mean like some kind of homework?” he asked like I had suggested going against the laws of physics. Apparently such a concept was unthinkable, or at best, discouraged. Above Egg Man’s doubts, I recommended a journal project as an easy, open-ended assignment for students to document their summer vacations. Educational merit aside, I was deeply curious about what the little buggers were doing with their newfound free time.

I designed a booklet with six pages, each split in half. Knowing that there were more cartoonists than wordsmiths among the rows of silent mouths drooling on desks, the top half of each sheet was left blank for optional drawings, photos or newspaper clippings. Double wide lines ruled the bottom half; five short sentences could easily fill the space.

Although originally intended for only my three classes, the assignment quickly won converts across the department. Egg Man ordered hundreds of additional copies; now all 14 high school English sections would be journaling this summer. Such a progressive assignment seemed like a good idea at the time, even at the risk of losing popularity among the moaning students. When school resumed in late August, however, a challenging stack of journals awaited my red pen and its refill of ink.

Scribbles of English were so incomprehensible that I had to limit myself to a dozen journals a day or risk fluid swelling in my brain. Out of more than 500 pages reviewed, my hand-picked favorites are reproduced below. These essays stand out for the lyrical simplicity of their prose that makes for a rhythmic and poetic read even if results run well wide of the grammatical mark. Without any further ado, I present to you:


The summer of Japan must fan. It is very convenient though it is not a wind of nature. Mosquito incense coil. Peculiar shape. Smell. There is an electric type today, too. I thought that the culture of Japan was very wonderful.

It is July 24 today.
Visiting a library on the way.
Children who had been doing the insect removing in the park were seen.
I thought to play in such a wind recently.
Such hot everyday.
It is likely to have to play outside only on such a day.
It was hot today.

First day, we are swimming in the pool and sea on the hotel all day. At night, we have a dinner at the hotel as smorgasbord, which there are Japanese, Chinese, Western food, fruit dessert and various drink and so on.

I went to sea with my littler brother and cousin and uncle and ant. Today is hot. I can few swim. So, I used float ring. I swimming in the sea. Then, I was nearly drowned! the wave was floated my float ring to the shore. I thought die.

August 15 sunny + cloudy
I couldn’t do homework. Because it is very hot today. My room was very hot when I comed from school. I will do homework. But, it is hot today. So I feel a lack of motivation. I think that I want to do cold tomorrow.

August 16 Wednesday
I met an old friend again. He is mother’s boy. I gathered in a house of a friend. I ate curry to lunch. Nose hair stick out. I was very happy on that day.

Today is August twenty three.
I went to school because today was
toukoubi. This means go to school day. Teacher talked about new term. I thought that I haven’t finished homework yet. I thought that Vacation has already ended for two weeks. I thought that how early it is!
I thought I sad.

8/31 – It is a day the last in summer vacation today. Homework has not ended yet. I think it is staying up all night today. Please help someone.

For other Engrish entries, have a look back on past compositions at other schools.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tax Office Jitters

...Continued from previous post.

The Shinjuku Ward tax office was a nondescript building in a nondescript section of Shinjuku, just beyond the shadows of the district’s celebrated skyscrapers. At first I walked right by, mistaking the four-story structure set back from the road for a school – a class of building molded from a similar concrete cookie-cutter batch.

Inside, the room of bureaucrats silently shuffled papers at retro metal desks under light fixtures yellowed with age. Lines snaked on the worn salmon carpet as people waited to turn in forms I didn’t have and couldn’t read.

Not sure of where to start, I walked up to an unstaffed counter. My strategy for assistance was one of entrapment. Looking helpless becomes an advantage when playing upon the innate sensibilities of the Japanese to deliver superior customer service no matter who the client.

I set myself as bait, standing tall and vigilant. One glance and Hiroshi was hooked. Our eyes met. I reeled him in with a smile and wave of papers (actually just the map the Oracle had circled).

Short spiky hair and acne-scarred cheeks gave him a fresh out of school look. Hiroshi was easily the most junior on the graying staff, and as a result was probably under 9-to-5 orders to serve whoever the wind blew in, such as clueless gaijin like myself.

Even though we couldn’t communicate, he dutifully ushered me to a long table with a wood pattern laminate peeling from the corners. I had seen this before. I flashed back to elementary school lunch tables on which I unwrapped the tinfoil around a PB&J sandwich my mother packed with two Saran-wrapped Oreos and a napkin inside a brown paper bag.

Instead of taking out my lunch, I handed Hiroshi the earnings slip that prompted the Oracle to steer me here. Turning in the paper was like loading batteries into a robot. Hiroshi sprung into action, picking up a form that looked like an accountant’s crossword puzzle. He plugged numbers into formulas, tapped on a calculator and juggled the results into rows of white boxes.

“Maybe you owe money!” echoed the Oracle’s haunting forecast.

That outcome worried me. Here I was going out of my way to do the right thing, and I prayed to be rewarded with a tax payout, not punished with penalty for a balance due. I watched Hiroshi’s tabulations with the fixation of a tennis line judge. Refund, refund, refund, I chanted to myself, holding my breath for the sum to settle. Totals climbed with additions and tumbled with subtractions. I felt like I was on some kind of personal finances game show hanging on to see which way the balance would tip.

¥26,820. Hiroshi put his pen down. Positive or negative? I sought clarification in his eyes, but he directed them towards his senior who had appeared behind him to supervise the calculations and translate the result into English.

“This number is your refund,” the man said of my approximately $240 windfall.

I exhaled. In my next breath I naively asked for my winnings in cash, drawing laughter from both employees. A casino this was not.

As I scribbled my bank account information on a deposit form, another sheet of paper appeared. It was a letter – in English and addressed to someone else. Apparently I had to do some off-the-books work to secure my money. No matter what a foreigner’s occupation in Japan, no one is immune from at least some degree of teaching English. Spontaneous tutoring arises without warning and in unusual places, like here at the local tax office. I ignored irregular capitalization as I proofread the letter about a foreigner’s double filing mistake. When I, too, rested my pen, we traded bowing thanks over the long table.

Outside the rain had stopped, and the pavement gleamed under thinning clouds. On my way home I decided to stop by the Oracle to share news of my good fortune.