Thursday, June 16, 2011

Do you have a boyfriend?

I have been in Japan for almost a full year.  I have visited seven different high schools and within those high schools, I have taught dozens and dozens of classes, seeing thousands of students at least once in the past eleven months.  Breaking that down into more manageable numbers, I have given 76 self-introductions of some form.  Sometimes I have the entire class period and a computer and can give a PowerPoint, other times I have only 10 minutes and a worksheet, and other times the teachers plan my self-introduction for me (no, I don't understand it either). 

I have gotten so good at introducing myself, that I can do it anywhere, anytime, to any level of English.  I can do it in five minutes or fifty.  With ten students or forty students, awake or asleep, as a game or as a lecture. I can size up a class in the first two minutes of entering the classroom and alter my introduction accordingly.  I know exactly what words are difficult for students and how to use those words so that students understand.  I know when I can speak slowly and when to speak faster.  I can pick out the potential troublemaker in the first thirty seconds of class and use preventative techniques to keep him (because it's almost always a him) in line. I know how the weather can affect student's attention spans and what to expect from a class if it's right after lunch or right before.  In short, I am the master at a self-introduction lesson. 

I've even created what I would consider to be the perfect class to give my self-introduction to.  It would have 27 students, 15 girls and 12 guys so that girls outnumber guys at a 5:4 ratio.  If guys outnumber girls - or even if the class is perfectly equal - I tend to have more problems keeping them in line. It would be 2nd or 6th period, after a gym class, on a sunny day where there is a slight breeze and temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  And it's preferably on a Thursday or Friday. 

Now that it's a new school year, I'm introducing myself to the new freshmen class at all of the same high schools that I visited last year.  Although students are divided between the high schools based on testing done in junior high schools - which leads to very different levels of English depending on what high school I visit - they still have many of the same things in common.  Students tend to react in a similar fashion when I ask them a question (surprise and speechlessness followed by a proclamation that they don't speak English), they tend to be at the same maturity level, and they tend to have a similar sense of humor. 

Another thing that every class has in common, from the lowest level of English to the top class at the top school, is that they all ask the very same question.  Without fail, a brave student will - at the urging of his or her classmates - ask me if I have a boyfriend. 

Without fail, that is, until yesterday.  I introduced myself to six new freshmen classes - about 240 new students - and all of the classes went well, except the very last class I had.  I left that class feeling like something was different, but unable to put my finger on it.  Why did that class feel unfinished?  Did  I do something wrong? Did students understand me? It seemed okay but it felt like something was missing.  

As I was walking down the hallway contemplating this, a group of giggling girls approached me and asked me The Question, "do you have a boyfriend?" That's when it hit me.  I had 75 classes where students asked me that question, and I had gotten so used to it, that I had subconsciously noticed when the last class failed to do so.  I was unable to make my usual jokes about the question.  For example, I occasionally answer that I have "many boyfriends" or I'd ask the class if anyone wanted to be my boyfriend, or some other smartypants response to get a laugh out of the students, deflect the question, and relax the class atmosphere.

I was shocked to realize that I had come to expect that question, all the time.  To be fair, many of the students were probably wondering that question but were too shy to ask.  Although my expectations for Japanese students have been so torn up and shredded to pieces that I hardly remember what I expected in the first place, my fuzzy recollections are that I thought it strange that students always asked me about a boyfriend.  Now, it's so expected that it's a part of my self-introduction. 

It's amazing what eleven months in Japan will do to one's sense of normalcy. 

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