Today, I found a memoir-like post hidden away in the depths of my hard drive. I thought this little piece perfectly conveyed what it was like to teach on the JET Program, as well as introduced some unforgettable characters all JETs are bound to meet on the journey. It’s a long post, but if you can slog through it, it perfectly summarizes my unforgettable experience working with my Japanese English Teacher (JTE).
“You have to meet Uchida-sensei,” all of the staff at the school told me repeatedly. “He’s going to be one of the English teachers you work with. Plus, I think he’s about the same age as you.”
The last sentence was always said with a wink. The whole school, faculty and students included, were hellbent on bringing myself and this Uchida person together. Although I had yet to meet him, I could already feel butterflies in my stomach. Not only was he the only teacher in the town my age—he was male, and he lived next door. Although I wanted a friend more than a relationship, I couldn’t deny the very slim potential that perhaps maybe, just maybe, we’d click.
All of those dreams went out the window when I saw him walk into the office.
“Oh Uchida-sensei,” the secretary shuffled to him. “Mary-sensei from America is here, she’ll be your assistant language teacher (ALT).”
He was on crutches. His foot was bandaged. He wore a tracksuit, which I quickly learned was regular attire for Japanese school teachers aside from the standard suit. He had long, flat hair in a conservative cut. For a Japanese man he was freakishly tall and stood a full 6”2’, towering over the other miniature Japanese faculty and students like a friendly giant trying to fit in.
We smiled and exchanged a handshake. I found out his desk was directly across from mine. He told me he was from Sado Island, one of the most remote places in Japan. He was a fresh graduate like myself with a bachelors degree in German under his belt. Although teaching German was his ultimate goal, he remarked, toward the end of university he decided to become an English teacher. I smiled and complimented his English—it was actually pretty damn good.
Later I learned that Uchida was a strange character no one really understood. He was using a crutch because he ran barefoot on black, hot tar to chase his student, which literally burned the skin off his feet. At his welcoming party he shamed the principal by drinking too much and hurling on the train, repeatedly, in front of the entire faculty.
To me, Uchida felt like a clumsy Japanese person trying to fit into a strange society that seemed to naturally reject his somewhat naturally obtuse and eccentric personality. Much like his height and size, Japan and the education system had a hard time figuring out where he belonged.
Yet he tried so hard, so endearingly hard, that I knew someday he would become an excellent teacher—the stuff stories are made of. He was soft and forgiving, a pure and natural soul from the depths of the Japanese countryside that made him lovable, yet full of fault in his untouched naiveté. Although he didn’t always fit the mold that the Japanese school wanted, his determination and persistence is what kept him going—and was what drew my respect.
Uchida’s desk was directly across from mine. In Japan, there are no cubicles or walled offices—everyone is on one team, out in the open, exposed at their desks.
Although we were working at a Junior High School, there were moments where Uchida and I acted more like adolescent teenagers than teachers. Sometimes we’d accidentally lock eyes when looking up from our desk work, to which we’d quickly break our gaze and stare the other way. At first Uchida used to give me a ride to work (since he was my neighbor), but the cat calls and taunts we got from the students on arrival at the school felt like some sort of walk of shame in which our non-existent relationship was exposed.
“When are you two going to get married?” the class clowns would shout.
While I smiled and tried to joke about my Uchida love affair, he turned beet red and shuffled to the teacher’s room as quickly as possible.
Out of respect for Uchida, and to clamp down on any sort of suspicion that we were dating, I gradually refused his noble gesture of driving me to work and walked instead.
I can never forget my first class with Uchida, because it was that bad.
I knew nothing about teaching—and neither did Uchida. We were both teaching virgins, and when we were thrown in front of 40 adolescent junior high students, we were at their complete and utter mercy.
I had no idea how to grasp the attention span of 40 children for one hour. After yelling at the students to shut up and sit down, I was finally able to start some sort of English introduction lesson—which lasted only fifteen minutes. With twenty minutes to spare, Uchida and I had no choice but to tell them to read chapter one of their English textbook in silence—which they didn’t. Instead, the Japanese version of “Uchida and Mary sitting in a tree…” ensued, and we were thoroughly humiliated.
As the classes continued and we began to understand the overall concept of keeping a child entertained via English learning, the Uchida & Mary team was born. Our silly English skits kept the students entertained, and eventually they began to view us as this young and awkward duo that, although difficult to explain why, were meant to teach together.
Uchida and I never stepped over the teacher or friend boundary, but we had a special relationship that was hard to put into words. As time passed we began to smile at each other rather than blush and look away, and gradually we learned more about each other. He loved German and spoke it fluently, but he had never been to Germany—although it was definitely a lifelong dream of his. He soon found out that I was a Japanese major and, though taboo to do in our school, began to speak Japanese to me outside of the classroom. Even today I can vividly remember all of the words he taught me:
“Mary, your Japanese is bacchiri!” he gave me a powerful thumbs up with a smile.
“Bacchiri?” I cocked my head.
“Uh… that means you’re even better than sugoi (amazing)!”
“Hey Uchida-sensei,” I asked during one of our lunch breaks. “How do you say ‘depends on’ in Japanese?”
“That’s a tough one…” he put his hand on his chin in deep concentration. “There’s ‘nani-nani shidai’ and then there’s ‘nani nani ni yoru’… it really depends on the context.”
He took out a piece of paper and began to explain these grammar concepts to me in Japanese.
“Oh I don’t want to bother you,” I smiled and waved his gesture away. “If you’re busy it’s fine, just wanted to ask.”
“Don’t worry Mary,” he smiled back. “This can be considered teaching practice.”
The longer I lived in Niigata, the more I learned about Japanese society and the more I began to withdraw further into myself. Japanese people were absolutely selfless in their actions and poured all of their efforts into upholding a society of rules and honor that literally ruled their lives.
I was baffled the teachers at my school worked until 11 PM every night.
When I discovered that many of my teachers were living alone in temporary apartments five-hours away from their families—and for three years at a time—I was at a loss for words.
In America I was taught that nothing was impossible. That family comes first. That you work to live, not live to work.
Uchida always got stuck driving me to different seminars around the area, mostly because he was the English teacher and thus it fell under his duties to chauffeur the foreigner. Still, those few moments in the car were the only times when Uchida and I were alone and we could talk openly, without the other teaching staff or students listening to our conversations. It was liberating, I could feel, for the both of us.
“You work until midnight every night!?” I shouted, alarmed.
“Yeah, there’s just so much work to do. I work on the weekends, too.”
I worked in the school and I was quite positive there was not that much work to do.
“So every weekend when I see your car gone from the apartment parking lot, you’re just at the school working?” I asked, bewildered.
“Yes, there are so many club activities and tasks to take care of. I’m truly exhausted.”
“You can’t take any vacation?”
I thought about my life in Japan, how utterly lonely it was. Although I befriended many teachers, their lives were so wound up in their work they had little to no free time for themselves—and heaven forbid they spend what precious time they had to accompany me, the foreigner, outside of the classroom. I was frustrated at the whole Japanese concept of life: living so far from family, working so hard and so long, essentially throwing away all joys of your life…
…and for what?
“Why?” I asked, frustration deep in my voice. “Why don’t you take a holiday, why don’t you take a break from your work and get a masters—or go to Germany? Isn’t going to Germany your dream? Just go, even for a month, a few weeks, a year…!! This is your chance, your life! In America I was taught that we can do anything, that life is full of opportunity and if we work hard enough we can achieve our dreams—and that’s exactly what I’m doing here. Japan was my dream, and I’m here! You can do the same!”
My burst of emotion was very un-Japanese and even Uchida looked alarmed. He pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped with a sigh. After a few moments of silence, he turned my way and looked me dead in the eye with a smile.
I’ll never forget the next sentence that came out of his mouth:
“I can’t, Mary.” He spoke softly, sadly. “Unfortunately, I was born Japanese.”
I had nothing to say. I wasn’t mad, or sad, or even surprised at his short, yet concrete statement. It was like all of my frustrations and conflicts were explained with that one sentence and there was no possible way I could counter-argue it.
“As a Japanese person I have duties that are required of me. What I want doesn’t matter now,” he said firmly.
“I’m sorry,” were the only words I could mutter after my immature outburst. I was humiliated—and more than that, I felt guilty. Guilty of understanding so little about this place.
“It’s ok,” he smiled. “Anyway let’s go, we’ll be late for the meeting.”
I was extremely nervous. I hid in the hallway ten minutes prior to the most important class of Uchida’s career. The ministry of education was here to watch and assess his lesson–in other words, see if he was worth keeping as a teacher or not. A horde of government officials stood tall and harsh at the back of our English classroom, clipboards and pen in hand. I could feel my heart pounding.
“Mary,” Uchida found me. “You ok?”
“Yeah,” I took a deep breath. “Are you sure you want me to teach this class with you?
“I’m sorry I wasn’t more honest with you,” I started to ramble in my anxiety. “I should have helped you more with classes in the past, should have told you upfront that I don’t actually have an education degree. I’m sorry if I,” I paused. “If I let you down.”
“Mary, to be honest with you,” Uchida said warmly. “I’m only relaxed in the classroom when you’re there with me. When you’re by my side, I feel at ease.”
It was then I realized it. That he needed me not as a native speaker or even entertainment for the classroom. He actually needed me as a partner, as emotional support, as someone to lean on. Although we were a stupid amateur duo, we were still a team.
“Ok,” I pulled myself together with a smile. “Let’s do this.”
Uchida passed his test. He became a homeroom teacher. As the days drew on, Uchida began to receive more responsibilities and I somehow started to resemble an English teacher. During my final year at the school Uchida watched over his class like a father watches his own children. I befriended all of the students in the school and mentored children who were being bullied or suffered from domestic issues. Uchida and I finally laid down the foundations to teaching English, and our once haphazard classes were now stable, firm, and smooth.
“Will you sing with me at the English talent show?” Uchida asked me out of the blue. “I’m terrible at singing and I don’t want to do it alone.”
“Sure, that helps me out too,” I laughed. “What song?”
“A Whole New World.”
I flushed red.
Although our student’s never let us live it down, Uchida and I sang Whole New World together in front of the entire school. I’m sure few foreign teachers can put that on their resume.
On the last day of my two-year career at the junior high school, I gave a speech to my students in English and Japanese. I diligently hid the fact that I spoke Japanese from my students for two years, and when they heard me speak fluent Japanese at the podium many of them were in shock.
I choked back the tears during my speech. I could see my favorite students crying. It was an assault of emotions.
After the assembly I ran to the teacher’s break room to get a grip. I took deep, long breaths. I looked out the window to the empty school grounds, to the hot and humid blue skies of June.
“Mary,” Mrs. H, the other English teacher, came in with Uchida trailing behind and held a neatly wrapped package. “Uchida and I put some money together and got this for you.”
I carefully unwrapped the package to find an expensive, brand name travel sachel. It was in a color I often wore to work: red.
At that moment, it became too much for me. The break room was now a cloister of memories. The secretary teaching me how to make fried eggplant in the break room kitchen. The vice-principal and I nursing a cup of coffee to recover from the hangover from the previous night’s drinking party. Catching Uchida taking a nap in the lounge chair after lunch. I could hear my students laughing, the teachers shuffling around in their everyday routine to arrange classes, and the echoing halls of a school that had seen generations of students come and go. It was almost as if the school was bidding me farewell.
I began to sob. I apologized for crying in Japanese and Mrs. H told me it was ok. When I looked up I saw her crying. She was hard and stern, like a drill sergeant, so seeing her cry on my behalf was so out of character I was forever moved by the moment.
I looked up to Uchida. He looked lost, bewildered, like a deer in the headlights. He was the kind of person who never did the right thing at the right time. In his eyes I could see his emotions conflict with words to say, or not to say. Like we did two years ago, I broke the gaze in humiliation, tears in my eyes, and I let Mrs. H hold me as I cried. Uchida left the room.
It was the end of an era.