Gaijin Smash

Penpals

Posted in Blog by gaijinsmashnet on August 5, 2005

I did a penpal exchange project with the School of Peace. While my website’s budding popularity was somewhat new, I got an offer for an exchange with American students, and it seemed interesting enough. I picked the School of Peace as the school that would have the best chance of actually making it work. (Possible Ghetto School letter: “Hi. I like sex. Do you play sex? I like hip-hop. How many guns do you have?”) Still, the head English teacher and I had some reservations about the project. Would the students be motivated enough to want to understand the letters, and write/send one of their own? A package of letters from American students came, and despite our anxieties, we distributed them to the ninensei.
I went through the letters beforehand, and separated them according to sex, as well as difficulty. We tried to match up students to an appropriate letter, both figuring it would be best to match students up with kids of the same gender, and letters appropriate to their English ability. I explained to the class what we would be doing for the next two days, and much as usual they listened without showing much in the way of outward emotion. We are Borg. Resistance is futile.
As the students received their letters, the atmosphere was still kind of quiet, and I wondered if they had taken any interest in the project. A few minutes in, the English teacher realized that maybe English-Japanese dictionaries would be a good idea. She left the class and came back a minute later with a basket full of dictionaries.
What happened next, I can only describe as a pack of hungry, ferocious tigers ravaging a freshly killed deer carcass.
The students leapt out of their desks, and within seconds, had dash-teleported to the front of the classroom, snatched the dictionaries, and bounded back to their seats and their letters. The poor English teacher, she’d gotten to the front of the class, said “Hey everyone, I’ve got dict-” and then simply disappeared in a sea of Japanese schoolkids. I’ve seen less clamor over the newest Harry Potter book. When the hyenas backed off, she was left standing there holding an empty basket and looking utterly disheveled. The look on her face ranks in the Top 3 of the Greatest WTF!? Expressions* of all time. (For the record, #2 is Elian Gonzalez staring down the barrel of an American semi-automatic rifle. #1 is Ms. Americanized face as Ms. Forehead told her about Michael Jackson Juice.)
So yeah, Mikey I think they like it.


Now, I communicated to my contact in America that these kids have been learning English for only a year, so letters should be written in the most basic forms possible. The teacher in America told the kids the same. But, they didn’t quite seem to get it. Kids wrote about having acres of farmland and their religious beliefs and all sorts of complicated stuff that left the poor Japanese kids scratching their heads utterly confounded.
What really threw them off was typos, though. They had no way of knowing that a misspelled word was a misspelled word. I saw one girl fretting over her dictionary for ten minutes and went to see what the problem was. She pointed a word out to me, and said she couldn’t find it in the dictionary. I leaned over and saw her point to “sate.” I told her that the student had made a typo on the word “state.” She didn’t verbalize her reaction, but if she had, it would have gone something like “…FUCK!” Well, in Japanese of course, but afterwards, she kind of laughed about it. “Well, it’s frustrating, but it’s kind of nice to know that Americans make mistakes with English too.”
She has NO idea.
Another student waved me over, and asked me to translate a sentence for him. His penpal had been talking about music. The sentence that was throwing him off was “I like metal.” I explained that metal was a type of music, like heavy rock. Instantly, a look of complete and total relief spread across his face, as if he’d just downed an entire crate of Rolaids. You know how if you’ve been needing to go to the bathroom but there are no toilets around, like you’re on a road trip or something? One hour passes… two hours pass… three… and all you can think about is emptying your bladder post-haste? When the moment comes, when you finally do get to piss, Oh My God the sweet, sweet relief? That top-of-the-world feeling that is only rivaled by sex, and watching new episodes of 24 on FOX? Yes, that look of relief.
“Oh! Oh thank goodness! Whoa, thank goodness!” He exclaims. I asked what the concern was. You see, Japanese people aren’t familiar with the metal genre, and probably never having seen the word before, this boy had simply looked it up in his dictionary. “Oh, I thought he meant metal, as in iron and steel,” he explained, “I thought I’d gotten a letter from some weirdo who was like ‘Hi, my name is so-and-so. I like to play with metal’.”
I thought it best not to explain what kind of music metal was.
It also seems as if the English teacher and I were wrong on one point at least – the gender. Despite our efforts, some boys ended up with letters from girl students and vice versa. One boy called me over for a question. “This name… how do you read it? And is this a boy or a girl?” The name was kind of ambiguous (damn you upper middle class white America. Stop naming your kids after fruits, mountain ranges, seasons, Toyota sudans, and whatever “trendy” thing you come up with). I told him it was probably a girl. The boy slowly stood up (I swear, almost in slow-motion), pumped both fists into the air, and triumphantly exclaimed “….YES! I got A GIRL!” The other male students sort of bowed to him in a jealous reverence.
These are the same boys who, if for some reason paired to work with girls in a class activity, will retch and contort uncontrollably until spasms occur, ensuring a trip to the school nurse. But having received a letter from an American female, this boy suddenly became Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic. Y’know, before it sinks. Astonishing.
Another boy called me over with the same question. Again, I tell him it was a girl. This girl had handwritten her letter, but her writing was really sloppy, so I guess the teacher had made her type up a draft on the computer. The original, handwritten letter was stapled to the computer draft.
Boy: This name…is this a girl or a boy?
Me: It’s probably a girl.
Boy: (flips to the handwritten copy) So then, you mean a girl wrote this?
Me: Well, yeah.
Boy: So, this is a girl’s handwriting.
Me: Well, it’s her handwriting…
Boy: (puts both hands on the paper) Wow. A girl wrote this…
Me: You know, the type-written version is probably a lot easier to read.
Boy: (looks up at me, still caressing the handwritten letter) I think I’m gonna stick with this one, thanks.
Whatever he did with the letter after class…I just don’t wanna know.
There was one letter that really threw everyone for a loop, including the teacher. The American student was talking about his favorite holidays, and he wrote something to the extent of, “My favorite holidays are Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, which is the resurrection of Jesus.”
I’m sure most if not all of you reading have had some experience studying at least a second language. Now, try to think about how to say “resurrection of Jesus” in your non-native tongue. Kinda hard, isn’t it? Now imagine a Japanese schoolboy trying to make sense of this sentence, when just a few weeks ago he was working on “I have many comic books.” And THEN factor in that Japan isn’t really a Christian society, and there’s no reason why they’d even know who Jesus is.
Yeah.
Even the teacher was baffled by this, so they called me over to help. “Well, resurrection is when someone who’s died comes back to life.” I explained to the student. He nods in understanding. “Okay,” he says, “now, who’s this Jesus character?” Christmas in Japan is all about the man in the big red suit. “Well, Jesus was a man…” I started to say, but before I could even finish my sentence, the boy looked up and me and said, “Oh! So, Jesus was a zombie then?”
…Yes.
Puts an entirely different spin on the Good Book, don’t it? But if Hollywood ever makes a movie about Jesus the Zombie (No. Please God, no. By the love of Erik Estrada, no.), I demand royalties.

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30 Responses

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  1. derek d said, on October 20, 2006 at 12:51 am

    i love you and your kids az. they make me happy all over. hope you never ask that kid the the letter back though…

  2. meiguo-=what said, on October 20, 2006 at 1:56 am

    yeah, I had a similar expereince. I teach english in China, and I had a girl that basically wrote me a description of another girl, but it was in more of the soft-core erotica format. I believe her last line was something like, “I am sure I will have a very good dream tonight”….
    Not really sure how to respond to that

  3. Kurenai said, on October 20, 2006 at 3:14 am

    That kid didn’t know what kind of music metal was?
    Having been generally unfazed by most of the other stuff in the editorials (Maybe because I have been living in such a culture myself), this single incident completely threw me off.
    The only country that I know to rival Japan in the metal scene would be Brazil, and this kid dared to not know what metal are?! He should at least learn to appreciate that most metal albums has at least one Japanese bonus track! Pfft, kids these days..
    (Az’s note:
    This was the number one issue people had with this editorial back in it’s first run. Japan may have a large metal scene, but it is by no means mainstream, especially out in the countryside.)

  4. Gabe said, on October 20, 2006 at 3:21 am

    I do not envy you sir. I had to explain to a Japanese adult what paintball was. All he got out of it was “Americans like to shoot each other?” which floored me. But you got the hard job on that one. At least he made the zombie connection so at least he was close.

  5. Xuelynom said, on October 20, 2006 at 6:01 am

    Hahah this post was very funny ๐Ÿ™‚
    It must be hard to keep one’s faith in a country where no one knows about it and see the weirdness right through the texts
    But as Jesus said: “Let come the… little brains… come to me… Braiiins”

  6. Brad said, on October 20, 2006 at 7:29 am

    Your love of 24 and Jack Bauer gives me hope for humanity.

  7. hikaru said, on October 20, 2006 at 8:50 am

    he would have known who jesus was if you refered to him as christ (or of course, the japanese pronounciation of kirisuto). he’s not commonly called jesus in japan.
    it’s like how japanese people will use last names even with their good friends, but americans call their bosses at work by their first names.

  8. jestergod said, on October 20, 2006 at 10:27 am

    with these lines “”Well, Jesus was a man…” I started to say, but before I could even finish my sentence, the boy looked up and me and said, “Oh! So, Jesus was a zombie then?”
    …Yes.”
    i can only say that futurama said it best: “sweet zombie jesus”
    but yes, its definately strange to think about that when you read the good book. but don’t try to tell that to people of that faith, that would cause too much panic.

  9. Spark said, on October 20, 2006 at 11:40 am

    Man, I would like a sitcom about you and your kids, it would be the best ever! ^^
    And btw. Jesus and Zombies: In this Flash Movie it was kinda connected, so your japanese boy wasn’t that wrong ๐Ÿ˜‰
    http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/204568

  10. Dazz said, on October 20, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    “Oh! So, Jesus was a zombie then?”
    Priceless. And so true.
    Someday I’m going to run into a church on christmas morning and shout “Jesus is a zombie!” and just see what kind of reaction I get.
    Yea I’m going to hell.

  11. Mike said, on October 20, 2006 at 10:28 pm

    My students get incredibly excited at the potential of TOUCHING REAL WESTERN HANDWRITING whenever we get the penpal letters.

  12. havok95 said, on October 21, 2006 at 12:11 am

    The girl couldn’t find “sate” in a dictionary? Sate is a verb, meaning “to satisfy” (thank you dictionary.com).
    Great article…but it’s the second in a row with a Titanic reference. Just thought that was worth mentioning.
    (Az’s Note: She couldn’t find sate in a jr. high school English-Japanese dictionary. I feel that is of some importance.
    Also, where was the Titanic ref in the Missing in Action ed?)

  13. TsukinoDeynatsu said, on October 21, 2006 at 3:57 am

    “iesu-sama no fukkatsu” ๐Ÿ˜›
    The zombie sounds like a good explanation for who he was though ๐Ÿ˜„

  14. anonymous said, on October 21, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    this is great! much better than the many dick-grab and kancho stories, which have gotten very repetitive and old.
    I love coming to your site and reading about insight to Japanese culture, your observations of it. Your consistent and frequent updates are appreciated! This was a wonderful story; please keep up the great work!

  15. Rachel said, on October 22, 2006 at 12:33 am

    Since the boys seemed so excited about getting a letter from an American girl, does that mean that men in Japan prefer American women?
    I heard that they preffered American men, so maybe it’s the same for women? I’ve been curious about this for awhile.

  16. Anonymous said, on October 22, 2006 at 7:36 am

    Consistent updates are easy when it’s all been written already…

  17. Anonymous said, on October 22, 2006 at 7:36 am

    Consistent updates are easy when it’s all been written already…

  18. James A. Calwell III said, on October 22, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    I remember when I applied for a potential penpal and bloviated like nobody’s business. Good times.

  19. Nik said, on October 22, 2006 at 9:25 pm

    I think a lot more people would get into religion if we started worshiping a Zombie Jesus instead of just a plain old Jesus. Would also make for an interesting euphanasia debate; Is it right to kill the living dead?!
    Sweet Zombie Jesus, indeed.

  20. Luke said, on October 22, 2006 at 9:37 pm

    As for WTF moments, where would Randall’s reaction to “Pillowpants” from Clerks II rank? Above or below the “Michael Jackson Juice”?

  21. Anonymous said, on October 24, 2006 at 3:12 am

    “Come hither, and eat of this rice cake for it is my body. In the meantime, I shall eat of your brains, for they are your brains.” – Zombie Jesus, Necronomicon 5:17

  22. Anonymous said, on October 24, 2006 at 3:12 am

    “Come hither, and eat of this rice cake for it is my body. In the meantime, I shall eat of your brains, for they are your brains.” – Zombie Jesus, Necronomicon 5:17

  23. Matthew Paneth said, on November 4, 2006 at 8:58 pm

    Jesus the Zombie, never saw Madness Combat?

  24. metal dude said, on November 20, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    Brazil, common Norway is king shit when it comes to metal

  25. Anonymous said, on December 11, 2006 at 1:26 am

    Zombie Jesus = WIN.

  26. Anonymous said, on December 11, 2006 at 1:26 am

    Zombie Jesus = WIN.

  27. evil_tennyo said, on December 15, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    LMAO! jesus is a zombie?!?! haha never thought of it like that

  28. A said, on August 12, 2007 at 2:24 am

    Sorry mate, but metal (soft, mainstream, girl, even indie and heavy) ALL exist in Japan, should you look hard enough. Some of the metal bands are VERY popular (enough to rival pop).
    L’Arc En Ciel, being one of the best examples, is consistently one of the top 10 Jap artists, there are others like Dir En Grey (heavy/Emo), some poppier Girl band types, as well as AniMetal (heavy) – which I don’t like – BUT their music features in the opening of Kamen Rider – a kids show, as I’m SURE you know.
    SO, there you go – Metal –. exists in J (if you are in to it and know where to find it)

  29. Kade said, on January 20, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Hehe, funny story…some of my friends were talking about Zombie Jesus last week…I think it’s arrived in America, Az. There’s no hope. Once the media gets hold it’ll be everywhere o___o

  30. Yun said, on February 24, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    L’Arc en Ciel is not, and never has been Metal. Heck they only occasionally qualify as “hard rock.”
    Dir en Grey and X-Japan (Koizumi Junichiro’s favorite band) are probably your best bets for comparison.


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