Gaijin Smash

Natsumi and Yuki

Posted in Blog by gaijinsmashnet on June 4, 2005

Natsumi is a sannensei at one of my schools. By now I’d known her two years, since she was an ichinensei. One thing I couldn’t help but notice was her wit – she could keep up, and many times even outwit me. So it was always a pleasure talking to her in the hallways. The other thing that made her really memorable was, one day early on she asked me to teach her a regular American greeting. (I think the kids kind of know “Hi, how are you?” “Fine thank you, and you?” is a little too stiff.) I thought about it for a moment, then settled on the casual guy greeting “Yo.” Complete with the slight hand raise and casual look on one’s face.
Every time I saw Natsumi, she would give me the “Yo” along with the hand motion. It was hilarious, because at first she was trying really hard to get it right, so I’d get the “Yo” (coming from a 12-year old Japanese girl, this is already funny), but then she’d also have this serious look of determination on her face as she did it. Later on, she got the hang of it, and became more natural. Well, as natural as she’s going to get anyway.
Yuki is one of Natsumi’s friends. They’re both in the brass band, and were in the same English class as ninensei. Yuki is one of those girls who finds everything funny. She is just always laughing, and she has a laugh that is especially loud.
This year, I wasn’t teaching Natsumi and Yuki’s English classes. Their teacher was busy with many other things and didn’t have the time to plan team-teaching classes. One day I was going to the bathroom from the teacher’s room, and I ran into Natsumi and Yuki heading back to class after running an errand for the teacher.
“You never come to our class.” Yuki pointed out.
I told her I really wanted to, but it wasn’t up to me, and it seemed the teacher had many things to do.
“Well then, come now.” This wasn’t so much a request as it was a warning. Yuki took me by the arm and more or less lead me back to class. There wasn’t anything for me to help with, so I simply took a seat behind Natsumi and joined the class. While they took notes on the English content, I took notes on the Japanese content. Yuki, of course, laughed a lot. I asked her what was so funny, but she couldn’t stop laughing long enough to actually tell me.


The week before Spring Vacation, I ran into them after school as they were getting ready for band practice. They asked me if I had any plans for the break, and I told them I was going to go back home for a week. They said it sounded good, and asked me to bring them back souvenirs. They weren’t entirely serious about it, and I knew that, but I told them I would. Why not?
One day before I was to go back to Japan, I made it a point to stop by the pier in San Francisco and just pick up a few trinkets for the both of them. Just a few small things, some pens, a friendship bracelet, a little trolley car, things like that. It only took me 15 minutes to find that stuff, and all in all it cost less than $5. I happened to be with my parents, and mentioned I was doing souvenir shopping for two of my students. My dad stepped up and said that kids love t-shirts (dad is currently a high school teacher), and I should get them some San Francisco t-shirts. I told him that was probably overdoing it a bit. But he said if I didn’t want to do it, he’d do it… just tell him a size and a style, and he’d buy it. I still thought he was overdoing it, but I picked out two shirts.
I returned to Japan, and a few weeks later went to Natsumi and Yuki’s school. I ran into Yuki again one day after school as she was preparing for band practice (come to think of it, she doesn’t do all that much playing… just wanders around, talks to friends, and laughs a lot). Yuki asked me about the souvenirs. I told her I’d brought them back, did she want to get them? Yuki was shocked. “Really? You really brought back souvenirs?” I told her yes, and suddenly Yuki was beside herself. She got so excited, she even started to hyperventilate a bit. She managed to calm herself down, and ran and got Natsumi.
They came with me back to the teachers’ room. First I gave them the little things I’d picked out, and told them it was from me. They were thrilled at the various little trinkets. “You know, we didn’t actually expect you to bring back souvenirs,” Natsumi told me. I told her I knew. Then I explained that when I bought them, I was with my parents, and my dad wanted to send something as well. I told them the next gift was from him, and then I gave them the t-shirts. They were completely floored by it, and exactly as dad said, they loved it (it took me over twenty years to realize that dad is usually right). They again thanked me, and made me promise to extend their thanks to my father as soon as I could. They ran off, still in shock and marveling at their souvenirs.
The next day, I was wandering around again when I ran into Yuki. She told me she was going to go visit relatives in a remote area of Japan pretty soon. “That area has lots of stuff it’s famous for,” she pointed out. “So…what do you want?” Huh? I didn’t quite understand. “You brought us back souvenirs from San Francisco. So I’m going to bring you back something from an area of Japan maybe you don’t think to go.” I told her it was okay, I didn’t want or expect anything in return. Yuki crossed her arms, matter-of-factly. “No no. I AM bringing you back something. What do you want?” Oh, well then. I said I really didn’t know. She told me they made some kind of famous coffee cake down there, and asked if that would be okay. I told her it would, but that she really didn’t have to.
Later, I was in the teacher’s room when I heard a soft voice calling my name. I looked up to see Natsumi poking her head through the door, waving me over. “Here,” she said simply, and gave me an envelope before running off. Inside of the envelope, written on four leaf clover stationary inscribed with the message, “I have a feeling that it’s going to be a good day,” was a letter.

Thank you for the souvenirs. I’m really interested in them. Tell your father thanks as well.
I really thought I’d write this letter in English, but I have no ability in English so it became a Japanese letter. Next time I’ll try to write it in English.
I’ve had a lot of talks with you since around when I was a ninensei, huh? From now on let’s continue to talk often.
When I go on the school trip, if I can buy you a souvenir I will. Look forward to it.
Well then, see you again.

She also included a card with her cell phone email on it, and wrote “If you ever need anything, please email.”
natsumi_letter.jpg
Before coming here, I had no teaching experience, so I can’t really claim to know what I’m talking about or even say I’m a good teacher. I can’t claim any psychological expertise either, despite often being the go-to guy for friends’ deep personal problems). But believe that in life, we often need someone else to validate our existence. We know we exist, but one of the hardest things to do is to look at yourself. Sometimes, we need someone else to say, “I see you. I recognize you.” It was an issue I’d been struggling with myself at that time, especially in a country where everything is one big in-group, one that I will never fully join simply because I wasn’t born Japanese.
In schools oftentimes it’s easy to get caught up in the bad students, trying to reform or save them, something like that. Or even get caught up with the exceptional students, always praising them and marveling at their abilities. I try to recognize everybody. Every kid may not stick out, they may not be a problem child or a prodigy, but they all deserved to be recognized. I don’t think that a kid should be overlooked just because he or she is doing what they are supposed to do.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but me bringing back souvenirs to Natsumi and Yuki was my way of telling them, “You’re more than just a name and a number, a seat in a class, another kid in a uniform. You’re an individual, and I see you.” In return, Natsumi and Yuki validated my existence, showed me that I’m more than the guy who comes to their school every few weeks and teaches them English. I may not be able to bring back souvenirs for every kid, but the very least I can do is pay attention to them… from the girl who likes a boy who already has a girlfriend, to the boy who is annoyed with the badminton club’s constant gossiping, to the girls who would rather go home and read their comic books than go to cram school.
This is my way of saying thanks, by the way, to Moeko.

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36 Responses

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  1. Gimp's World said, on September 11, 2006 at 1:48 pm

    A lot of people complain about the archives’ being transferred so slowly. Azrael, I enjoy them. They make me recall some past posts of yours fondly and remember that particular moment in time where I went “I’ve felt like that before!”

  2. Anonymous said, on September 11, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    It’s these posts that make me come back to your site.
    The penis grab, kanki stories are okay. Funny once or twice, but got old quick. It’s when you give insight to Japan, and your personal reflections as an outsider that really move me.
    Just like the owl post, and the post where you talked about how things are different in Japan.
    Keep it up; I am looking forward to seeing many more stories from you.

  3. Anonymous said, on September 11, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    It’s these posts that make me come back to your site.
    The penis grab, kanki stories are okay. Funny once or twice, but got old quick. It’s when you give insight to Japan, and your personal reflections as an outsider that really move me.
    Just like the owl post, and the post where you talked about how things are different in Japan.
    Keep it up; I am looking forward to seeing many more stories from you.

  4. Josh said, on September 11, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    Cool, its always a good thing to be noticed and to know that the lion share of japanese people might be crazy ,but that still leaves a few sane ones. The whole big “in group” thing sucks and is silly.

  5. Haruka Matsumoto said, on September 11, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    Hahaha that’s great really. I’m glad you posted something sincere and sweet like this once in a while. I have a home in Japan, well its more like my grandparents house. I never really experienced school in Japan and sometimes I wish I did, I was born near Nagano 19 years ago and I only go back for vacations sometimes. I love how Japanese schools really emphasize club activities. Of course its not perfect and Japan has its own flaws. Watching those “shoujou” or romance animes sometime makes everything feel superficial and kinda dreamy. So I guess I do get kinda jealous. My boyfriend is a chinese guy and well, there are hardly any Japanese people in Eastern Canada. Only thing I hate is when he uses me as a trophy. “Oh, my girlfriend is Japanese!”
    Anyway, great post and keep it up Az!
    -Haruka, long time reader, first time poster.

  6. Dirty Dan said, on September 11, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    You know, I’ve always been trying to maintain a balance between the anime/manga perspective of “everybody speaks informally” and the Japanese textbook perspective of “everybody speaks formally”, but that letter is entirely in plain forms. She didn’t even give Az an honorific. Is this really commonly acceptable protocol between students and teachers?

  7. Newt said, on September 11, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    This is sweeter and more heart warming than most of the stories in your archive… Except for Moeko’s Owl…
    πŸ™‚

  8. Anon said, on September 11, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    Dear AZ,
    I love this article of yours, especially the ending. I think you’ve hit on a realization that makes you different and better than most teachers out there, whether you know it or not. As a student before, one that neither stood out or made trouble, I would definitely love to have you as a teacher because you make people like me feel special too.
    Cheers to your teaching career; albeit, an odd one.

  9. Meg said, on September 11, 2006 at 11:17 pm

    I just wanted to say that I love your blog, and this entry in particular. I’m in high school in California and have so many shitty teachers, you would not believe it. On occasion, though, there’s that one rare instructor who actually understands what it means to be a teacher and can make a difference in a kid’s life, by just caring. You are one of those people.
    Kudos for an amazing blog! I check every day for updates. =P

  10. KissTehAss<3 said, on September 12, 2006 at 12:58 am

    Hmm, forgive me, old fellow for the name; couldn’t resist the pun. I was half expecting that sweet girl to ask you for Virginity Removing Services since all your other stories and tales have penises and kanchos in them; I was astonished nontheless in a pleasant way about how this ended. I myself am a student, and I applaud your reaching of the next level. I hope you won’t be derived of this level-gaining (beg pardon, I play too many video games) and I beseech that you won’t loose this touch when you get old and that you seemingly don’t care like average elderly elementary teachers scattered throughout America.
    Cheers~
    And Avid Reader and Fan

  11. Beelzebub said, on September 12, 2006 at 1:44 am

    I agree with the above posters… personal reflections on Japanese life definitely give a better “American” understanding to what Japanese teaching’s all about.

  12. JJ said, on September 12, 2006 at 1:44 am

    You’re like this perfect writer, a great mix of humor and serious tones. The owl story still has to be my favorite. I almost cried. It’s cool to see that you make such an impact. I’m also an American learning Japanese, and someday going to study there.

  13. Fortune of Sarcasm said, on September 12, 2006 at 3:56 am

    Az I’ve been reading since the beginning and your site is visited multiple times a week but it’s always a good read and i hope to keep reading it.
    Thanks for all the cool stories and entertainment.

  14. Yaz said, on September 12, 2006 at 8:47 am

    Now THIS is the reason why I love your blog. As a teacher myself, I look forward to learning more about the culture as well as the education system in Japan. Your students seem really unique….that is if you can ignore the fact that most of them are ultimately interested in grabbing and kancho-ing. πŸ˜€ Such posts are more interesting than those about the endless attempts to physically attack you!

  15. zen said, on September 13, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    one of the better post, the others are funny this was touching, nice!

  16. zen said, on September 13, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    one of the better post, the others are funny this was touching, nice!

  17. Tom said, on September 13, 2006 at 11:30 pm

    For Haruka:
    I’ve never taught in Japan on JET or anything, but I did study abroad there during high school and college. I can’t speak for this specific situation, but in my experience, outside of class, IF you have developed a personal relationship with teacher, casual forms become more acceptable. For me in particular, one of my teachers in Nagoya flat out told me to stop honoring him, but he was also younger, had a rock band outside of school, and eventually went out drinking with most of us students after the semester was over – of course I would hope this doesn’t happen between a JET and a highschooler, creepy. I’m also really happy to see that my Japanese handwriting is better than a Japanese native…
    PS – love the site, have been a fan for a while

  18. Dazz said, on September 14, 2006 at 4:25 pm

    This is one of the posts that makes me want to follow in your footsteps and try out the whole thing for teaching in Japan. Of course, It’ll be awhile now, I’m just in high school myself, but one of these days! Keep up the good work, I love reading all these!

  19. Anonymous said, on September 14, 2006 at 8:12 pm

    Hi Haruka Matsumoto
    ” Is this really commonly acceptable protocol between students and teachers?”
    It is not just status that determines whether you use an honorific or notγ€€in Japanese. Psychological distance plays an important role too .In this case, the student feel psychologically closeness, friendliness toward Az, and Az, I guess, allowed it.
    Kancho and so forth happens only for intimate friends among kids. Az is lowering himself to the viewpoint of kids. Of course, Az can choose to prohibit it.
    I think what is great about AZ’s story is Az can be a friend as well as a teacher to these kids.
    From a native Japanese.

  20. Anonymous said, on September 14, 2006 at 8:12 pm

    Hi Haruka Matsumoto
    ” Is this really commonly acceptable protocol between students and teachers?”
    It is not just status that determines whether you use an honorific or notγ€€in Japanese. Psychological distance plays an important role too .In this case, the student feel psychologically closeness, friendliness toward Az, and Az, I guess, allowed it.
    Kancho and so forth happens only for intimate friends among kids. Az is lowering himself to the viewpoint of kids. Of course, Az can choose to prohibit it.
    I think what is great about AZ’s story is Az can be a friend as well as a teacher to these kids.
    From a native Japanese.

  21. Azrael said, on September 14, 2006 at 10:53 pm

    My kids almost never use polite forms.
    Well, they do at the School of Peace. But they condition those kids pretty hard. I saw a student once get chewed out because, apparently, he wasn’t paying good enough attention.
    At the Ghetto School, the students swear out the teachers.
    At the other school, it’s kind of a mix. Sometimes I see the teachers correcting students, like when they’re calling for a teacher in the teachers room (kid: sensei iru? Teacher: Sensei ga irrashaimasen ka tte koto?) but in classes and what not it’s still primarily casual forms.

  22. Emma said, on September 14, 2006 at 10:56 pm

    snif…this post was so sweet…I also liked seeing handwritten Japanese characters because up until now, I’ve only seen typed stuff. What a sweet, innocent, kind sort of thing to write. Sometimes, the good kids do go unnoticed because the bad kids take the spotlight. I should know, I’m one of the forgotten good kids myself. But I have a feeling that, even though my teachers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to stop my peers from talking loudly or text messaging or whatever, they appreciate me. This post validated that πŸ™‚

  23. AlBundy said, on September 16, 2006 at 3:11 am

    Your name is Jeff, Az? :p

  24. azzy said, on September 18, 2006 at 11:36 am

    dude… you totally ripped off naruto back there:P

  25. Kerensa said, on September 19, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    Reading this has reminded me why I want to teach English so badly. That was a nice story.

  26. Jei said, on October 21, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    wow. great story!
    you’re from cali too then, i take it? =]

  27. Joey said, on November 4, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    This is a truly touching story. Thanks for this. You’ve more than earned a life-time reader.

  28. Katie said, on November 20, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    You are such an amazing writer. I’m hooked on every word. And pretty much have ADD when it comes to reading so that’s a pretty amazing thing. I love these types of posts! They’re so sweet πŸ™‚

  29. lubyloo said, on December 7, 2006 at 8:30 pm

    i love these posts, where you really show that these students mean something to you.
    you’ve reinforced my idea of doing JET after university. thanks. πŸ™‚

  30. evil_tennyo said, on December 15, 2006 at 1:05 am

    that was very sweet, and a refreshing break from your other entries. πŸ™‚

  31. Corey said, on February 14, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Wow, all the more reason to do the JET program.

  32. Crystal aka Suisyo said, on April 13, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Wow, what an amazing post. I am new to your blog and I have to say I am very grateful to have found it. I am going to college now with the goal of becoming a teacher in Japan. I plan on doing this long term, and your personal accounts as a teacher are very inspiring and eye opening. I had never heard of the Kancho thing until your blog, it’s a bit terrifying but is it odd that I still want to go to Japan more than ever? Not because of the kancho part lmao, but because of posts like this one and the Moeko one. I like how candid your posts are because it shows both the good and the bad about Japan from the viewpoint of a foreigner, but doesn’t emphasize one side or the other. I tend to hear people swayed to one side (ex. “Japan is such a beautiful country, I love it!” or “Japan is terrible I hated it there!”). You don’t push opinions but just give an account of your experiences and let the readers decide how they feel. Reading about the daily occurances vs. just some quick summary of a vacation or living there is a lot more interesting and informative.
    Anyway, thank you again. Your blog is fun, funny and inspiring. I look forward to reading more.
    Good luck!

  33. JAKE SMITH said, on October 28, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Dude, Your name is totally Jeff.
    Thats fucking weird.

  34. Anonymous said, on May 26, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    This was a heart warming story, and I regret not catching on to your blog earlier. Stories like these don’t really exist over here in America. Although I have many friends, I feel alone. I’m sure many American teenagers feel the same way. Az, you truly are a great teacher.

  35. Anonymous said, on May 26, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    This was a heart warming story, and I regret not catching on to your blog earlier. Stories like these don’t really exist over here in America. Although I have many friends, I feel alone. I’m sure many American teenagers feel the same way. Az, you truly are a great teacher.

  36. Herm said, on June 29, 2009 at 4:30 am

    No finally your true name was unvealed. I really do enjoy reading your blog and am sorry that my japan blog is in german so not free for most people to read.
    I like your Alias though. I am using it too πŸ™‚
    Azrael


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