Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Going Through the Motions

*knock knock*


The door opens a crack, and a timid, teenage, feminine voice says in heavily-accented English, "May I come in?"

"Sure! Come on in!" (Like, as if I would say no...)

The door opens all the way, and a 9th grade girl student comes in. She's wearing her uniform with the bow hanging a bit loose (in keeping with current trends), a big smile, and eyes that look like they could jump out of their sockets and run away in fright at any minute. Her movements are stiff as a doll as she seats herself. She is here to take her final English Oral Communication Interview Test, something the 9th graders have to endure twice during the school year. The first such exam, which happens in September, is fairly short and simple...more like an initiation than anything else. The second semester test is longer, more complex, and much, much more brutal.

"What's new?" I ask, my eyebrows arcing into Diabolical level II position with well-practiced indifference.

Her face looks panic-stricken for almost a full second. Then she smiles even wider. "Nothing special," she replies with a giggle.

"Okay." A coffin-lid grin spreads across my face as I reach for the question cards.

Those are actually something new...a welcome break from the routine, if a bit of a hassle. When I first started doing these interview tests back in 1999 it was entirely up to me. I actually went through it five times a year back then, and I did it all by myself without any complaint. When my grade 9 classes became team-taught from 2001, however, my working mates immediately started griping about the interview test. They were enthusiastic about it in principle, but not in practice. They weren't about to let me do it on my own, but they also insisted that four or five times a year was too much. Instead, we reduced it to twice a year, replacing the other occasions with English speech presentations (or, as we tried this year for the first time, English skits). Then they started griping about the security issue, i.e. students taking the test and then relaying the content back to their fellows. It was something I'd thought about, but it hadn't seemed to have much impact on the scores, so I hadn't bothered with it. My work mates were adamant, though, so in 2003 I started making multiple versions of each test. That seemed to work fine, but it wasn't enough for Ms. Y, my current teammate. She wanted a completely different set of tests for each class (but never offered any assistance with preparation). That sounded like a serious pain in the aft-shaft, so I did what I usually do: I came up with something even worse. Instead of making different versions of the test, I made a whole stack of question cards. Each examinee would get three of them, drawn at random. That way no two tests would be alike. It makes it all a bit interesting, too.

I draw the first card, glance at it, write its number on the student's score sheet, and ask, "What subject do you have third period on Monday?"

"I have...math!" the girl calls back.

"How do you like it?"

Her nose wrinkles. "'s very terrible!" She's starting to enjoy it. Most of them do after they get over the initial jitters.

This girl is actually overflow. We have as many students as possible take the interview test during their regular Oral Communication class period, and then we pick up the rest by appointment. The first test, back in September, is always short and simple, so there aren't many left over. The second test, however, is muuuuch longer, and well...

Second card. "Have you ever been to Kashima Shrine?"

The girl's brows furrow. It seems like a stupid question. Almost everyone within a radius of 100 kilometers if not more has been to Kashima Shrine at least once if not regularly. I half expect (hope for?) her to reply by saying, "DUH!" Instead, I get a polite, "Yes, I have."

"How long did it take to get there from your house?"

I wonder if that question could be considered an invasion of privacy. The personal information laws that came into effect in Japan a few years ago are draconian to the point of absurdity. If your ex-spouse decides to ignore custody rulings, abducts your children, and moves, you aren't allowed to try to track them down because that would be invading their privacy. Hospitals are not allowed to provide paramedics with a person's medical records unless that person submits a signed request lest his right to privacy be violated (meaning he's screwed if he's unconscious in the back of an ambulance!). Examiners in the Standardized Test of English Proficiency (STEP) are no longer permitted to ask examinees anything other than "How are you?" because questions like "Do you enjoy your school life?" are officially regarded as personal affronts. And here I am asking a student to reveal how close she lives to Kashima Shrine, which is right next to Ye Olde AcademyTM.

"It took only about ten minutes," she volunteers. "My family lives very close to the shrine." Obviously this girl doesn't feel her rights have been violated. I don't know whether the state would feel violated for her, however.

I draw a third card. "What did you do last winter vacation?" Uh, oh. That is definitely a high-risk question! I should demand extra compensation!

"I went to my grandparents' house," she replies without hesitation.

"How was it?"

"It was very enjoy!"

Oops...a grammar slip, but it's a very common one. The Japanese word is "tanoshii" (楽しい), which is actually an adjective meaning "enjoyable", but Japanese English textbooks always translate it as simply "enjoy", hence the confusion. Oh, well. At least this girl seems to have a life beyond PlayStation and comic books.

Speaking of video games, I finally managed to locate a Nintendo DS Lite...for myself. I've been using it for "adult brain training" and Japanese kanji practice, and I'm loving it (between headaches). I won't let my poor kids touch it.

"Okay," I say as I scribble on the girl's score sheet. "Now I'd like you to look at this map." So begins the main part of the test: giving and receiving directions. This year's 9th graders have been a wonderful bunch to work with, and they've been very well prepared this time. This girl is obviously ready to go, and she does very well with the map. I only have to ding her a point for missing one preposition.

"Okay," I say, "that's it. You're finished. Thank you very much! You can go now."

The girl smiles, heaves a heavy sigh, and jumps to her feet. She gives me an English "Goodbye, Mr. [Moody]!" followed by a Japanese bow. Then she scampers happily out of the room. What a pleasant bundle of youthful energy...not yet corrupted by the cynical swamp that bubbles outside the walls of the campus.

"Next!" I bellow. The next examinee opens the door a crack, peeks in, and then musters up the courage to move her whole body through. It's time to repeat the routine once again. It's okay. There's only about a dozen left to go today...and more than forty tomorrow...

So it goes, and for no apparent reason I'll end this post with a kumquat:

Blogger's Note: The first kumquat image I posted indeed turned into something, but it definitely wasn't a cabbage! I apologize from the bottom of my heart to anyone that ended up having to see that, and I wouldn't mind if whoever pulled that stunt on me winds up suffering something similar...


  • ...and suddenly the kumquat turns into a cabbage. (Fwoop)

    rudbool - when an astronaut drives more than 700 miles in a diaper to kipnap and possibly kill a romantic rival. "Wow, that Lisa Bowen tried to totally rudbool that other woman."

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:06 AM  

  • Ah, good, if I ever go to Japan, I can be reasonably confident that if I ask for directions somewhere, I might get usable info. All I have to do is ask a student.

    What the heck is a kumquat? Is it a vegetable or fruit?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:24 AM  

  • Um, can't you ever say anything like "That's too bad, I have to do "X" with my family/work/whatever as well, I guess you can get back to me when you have time".

    And, of course, if she comes up with the idea for something, simply say, "Great! When are you going to present it to the team?"

    By Blogger Hypatia, at 9:50 AM  

  • HEY....what happened to my kumquat??!?

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 5:51 PM  

  • I sometimes call K "my little kumquat" in my best WC Fields voice. She cracked up when we watched not just one but two movies in which that line is used - once by an actor playing a scene as Fields, the other delivered by Vincent Price in a murder mystery. (We have a kumquat tree too.) And no, as Moody knows, "K" does not stand for "Kumquat".

    Nice kumquat pic.

    I'm impressed by your 9th grader's performance. Too bad about Ms Y. She must have gotten tips from Mr. O about you. :(

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:00 PM  

  • There are some things in life that you cannot unsee, no matter how strongly you wish that you could. Oh how I wish I could...glad to hear you did not do it on purpose though.

    By Anonymous The Intrepid Adventurer, at 6:51 AM  

  • oooh, I got 17/20 on your little Flag quiz.

    Anyway, on to your post. I like how you wove asides into the general thread. Very storyteller...ish.

    Too bad I missed the cabbage, might have had a giggle over it :)

    I can't believe that about the privacy laws! As much as I find Jp culture intriguing, if I lived there, I'd be tearing my hair out and gnashing my teeth! There is so much you CANNOT do, and at the same time, so much you CAN do that absolutely puzzles us westerners.

    As for Mrs Y vs Mr O...the lesser of two evils. Seriously, anyone would probably want to throttle the meddler. Everyone hates a meddler...

    I like kumquats! Well, I suffer through the sour pulp just for the reward of the sweet skin. And eating the skin alone just lacks the thrill.
    But I can't say I like kumquats.
    I can't go more sour than tamarinds. I love those. Had any?

    By Blogger Olivia, at 8:08 AM  

  • Don't worry about the earlier kumquat image… I was only at work!

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 9:55 AM  

  • Snabulus
    I wish it had turned into a cabbage instead of that gruesome image that showed up!

    Giving directions in a foreign language isn't easy, and my students often have a lot of trouble with it. This year's 9th graders have been a wonderful exception.

    A kumquat is a fruit similar to an orange, only different...

    I'm seriously tempted to do away with the whole work/social ethic thing and do something like what you just said...or even nastier. Yesterday (Friday) she did it to me again. Eight students came to her after school to take the interview test, and she told them all to go find me and ask me to do it since she was too busy (doing what I don't know). I wound up giving more than fifty interview tests yesterday, and my brain was mush.

    Meanwhile, the teacher contacts at our Australian sister school seem to have completely written me out of the picture all of a sudden. They no longer e-mail me, and they no longer respond to my e-mails (business or personal)...yet they e-mail Ms. Y almost every day. I'd really like to know what's up with that...or whether Ms. Y had something to do with it.

    I suppose being called a fruit is no worse than being called a bird. ;-)

    I honestly don't know what the deal with Ms. Y is. She and I have always gotten along really least on the surface. However, when we were in Australia she showed that she can be very self-centered...and does just what she wants just when she wants (such as phoning for a taxi and then, when the taxi shows up, ducking into a gift shop and wondering why the taxi gives up and takes off...). She wasn't like this before.

    Intrepid Adventurer
    Well said, as usual!

    The privacy laws are causing so much trouble that the government is currently debating whether they should debate debating whether they should roll them back.

    I agree: the lesser of two evils. It's still aggravating, though...

    Whoops...sorry about that!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:51 PM  

  • hmmm... kumquat is oval? interesting. I have only seen round kumquat before, due to geographical difference/ species difference, I suppose.

    The privacy infringement rules is ridiculous! How are people going to relax and feel natural talking among one another when every small talk we make are potential to be deemed infringing privacy? So much of freedom of speech. ;-)

    By Blogger YD, at 5:18 AM  

  • Hey Moody, I also had a picture "turn into a kumquat" (a post long ago about midsummer at Stonehenge-which such a cool pic!) I had to look around for another pic, which was just ok.

    As for the professional thing, I sounded so grouchy earlier, it touches a nerve! I inevitably have much the same trouble.

    Funny at every job I've ever left, they beg me to come back (well, except for one this past Xmas, but I was sick for a month (!), more on that later); -Of course this is after realizing all the work I did, that everything I said about X, or Z not providing info or doing their work in a timely manner was true!

    By Blogger Hypatia, at 10:52 AM  

  • it is a nice kumquat.. alrite

    By Blogger Robin, at 6:27 PM  

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