It’s quite nice to be admired and even nicer to be respected- in Japan, as a gaijin-sensei, I certainly receive a lot of admiration. But I sometimes feel a dearth of respect.
Once a week, I teach at one of four elementary schools. If you’re good at math, and Lord knows you don’t have to be for this job, you’ll be able to work out that I visit these schools more or less once a month. When you’re a little, bobbly-headed Japanese six-year-old, that is in fact an era. An age has passed in between sightings. You can barely remember the last time you saw a gaijin in the flesh. So, naturally, you want to make the most of this encounter.
I am always a little trepidacious about teaching the first years at Elementary School- not because the lessons are hard or even boring or slow-moving, but because of what comes after. As soon as the bell rings, the students flee from their desks, get as close to me as possible and prod, grab, squeeze, tug, twist, rub, flick or scratch any part of my body they can reach.
Not to reveal my kryptonite, but I am extremely ticklish.
On my last visit to Elementary, the children literally had me on the floor, scream-laughing at full volume, before the teacher moved to stop them. This was only because it was lunch time and they were meant to be setting up. No mention was made of not treating sensei like he is a tickle-me Elmo.
I picked myself up off the floor, dusted myself down and then was informed I would be dining with my persecutors. A very uncomfortable lunchtime followed.
I know that this is not done in malice: these children have very rarely, if ever, had a chance to interact with a real life foreigner and they are naturally curious. If you put a martian or a white rhino in front of me, I would probably act the same. The person who I really have a beef with here is the teacher.
Some of my friends have said that I need to stand up for myself in this situation; one even helpfully commented that if I didn’t project such a natural air of buffoonery, the children wouldn’t feel empowered to treat me as such. But it’s very hard to argue, and even harder to maintain an air of dignity, when your body is compelling you to screech and flail. Most of the time, I have to concentrate on not accidentally smacking one of the children in the face.
The main teachers of these classes have no such concerns- why they don’t tell their young charges to cease, I’m not quite sure. I’ve heard laughter a couple of times and at least one teacher took the time to photograph the onslaught, so at least a couple of them don’t want to spoil their own fun.
But I think a deeper reason is that this may well be part of my job- one of the primary functions of the ALT is to pique the curiosity of the Japanese students; after all, nothing is a better motivator for learning than wanting to be like someone cool. A bit like Mary Poppins, we must mix mystery, mastery and a touch of mischief and ultimately leave the audience wondering what our deal was and if they could learn to do that. These children are clearly fascinated by me, and thus I’m fulfilling my purpose. Maybe their love of grabbing gaijin will lead them to study English so that in the future, they may grab some more (and hopefully ask for consent next time).