The two year-olds have been ganging up on me lately, ever since Kazuya had the brilliant idea of asking me if class was over when it was only halfway through. Because I feigned hurt feelings, Kazuya decided this was to be our inside joke and now asks me if class is finished every 30 seconds. The others have seized upon it, too, chorusing his question over and over like a flock of baby Mynah birds. Then they begin to shriek the syllable “ba,” which is something else they’ve recently discovered they can do.
Nakata-san, my 50 year-old salaryman private student, thinks it’s pointless to teach children English.
“Learn Japanese first,” he snorts, before guffawing self-satisfiedly. “Waste of time.” Nakata-san, unlike the vast majority of my adult students, has no problem volunteering his opinion. He is also very wealthy; a fact he makes sure to mention several times per lesson. I suppose I could be put off by this, especially by his penchant for calling the middle class “ordinary people,” but I try to see my sessions with Nakata-san as a glimpse into a world I know nothing about. Nakata-san buys a new luxury car every year and takes friends to restaurants so extravagant that each course is served in a different room, paired with a bottle of wine that costs more than my share of the rent. Students at my school are only allowed to take one 1-hour lesson per day, but Nakata-san gets 2 and-a-half. Naturally, because they’re “boring” and his English is already perfect, he refuses to use textbooks so what’s left is 180 minutes of forced conversation. I often dread the class because without the shield of textbook grammar, I feel an insurmountable pressure to perform and, since I do have to spend such a long time with him each week, let the sexist, classist and primeval comment he makes roll off my back. I sometimes feel like a blend of overindulgent therapist and Japanese “hostess,” enabling my deluded clients and providing salarymen with charming company in exchange for money and gifts, like a modern-day geisha.
I had a student last year who I suspected was a hostess. Each night, she had to rush home at the end of class to make her nightly hair and makeup appointment and she once told me that she was feeling guilty because she’d told a customer that her computer was broken. Why guilty? Because she told him that knowing he would give her a brand new one. Her hunch was correct; he showed up at the bar with a MacBook the next night. Now, she never actually called herself a hostess but I used to work in a bar and no one ever gave me a MacBook. Nakata-san does bring gifts, though; bottles of green tea and diet soda for me and the rest of the staff. Adding to the hostess bar vibe, I’ve also caught him staring at my breasts a few times. I’m the only teacher at my school on Wednesdays and doubt the 60 year-old secretary would make much of a bouncer … that is, if Nakata-san were actually a threat. As it is, he’s just a windbag and to be quite honest, thank goodness for that. When he’s not referring to his spouse as “just a housewife,” he’s actually a great source of cultural information. Most of my adult students insist that I yank on their incisors before responding to “How are you?” but not Nakata-san, who scatters his opinion about like seed. This is how I survive 2 and-a-half hours of free conversation; I simply ask him a non-partisan question about Japanese culture and he’s off. It suits me just fine; I don’t have to talk and I always learn something new. For example, Japanese prime ministers quit their jobs as often as Burger King employees and a Japanese person whose last name ends in “Kin” is more than likely the descendant of Korean immigrants.
Every once in a while I disturb the harmony, like when he refers to different groups of Americans by their accompanying ethnic slurs or when he says that my wiggly little 2 year-olds have no business learning English.
“Well, now, I don’t know,” I’ll begin.
“Garbage!” he will bellow.
Now, it’s true that the 2 year-olds have to be reminded what their own names are. They’re so little they probably haven’t figured out that Japanese and English are different languages. But language is a gift and I refuse to believe any sort of exposure is a waste of time; even though I see them once a week and they spend most of the class climbing the walls and shouting, “Owatta?!?!” Every once in a while they surprise me by calling out the name of a flashcard I showed them 2 weeks ago. Sure, they usually call out the name of the flashcard in Japanese but the English is getting in there. They’re exposed and, if they keep on taking English class, by the time they learn English for real in Junior High School they won’t have to root around for basic vocabulary like I do, at 28 years old.
When I tell Nakata-san this, he only says “bah!” and waves his arm. It’s a dismissive gesture, but I know I’ve won. Maybe if I drop a few hints, he’ll bring me a cupcake as a prize.