Tell 'em what I took, man!

Reflections of a repatriated ex-patriot

Friday, December 22, 2006

So far, in my haphazard attempt at blogging, I have failed to mention that Japan is not the first place I have lived abroad. I was in the Czech Republic for a year and a half prior to my moving there. I find it prudent to discuss the differences between the two because I believe the duality of the experience is unique, although I know perhaps six other people who have lived in both places.

Work life:
Nothing could be further apart than teaching English in Prague and teaching English in Japan. First of all, let’s take a look at the social approaches to learning the world’s most internationally recognized language. In the Czech Republic learning English was an expediency; a means to an end. When I arrived, the Czech Republic hadn’t yet joined the European Union, but they were on the cusp so the demand for English teachers was to promote broader integration with member nations. My trainers in Barcelona (I started the whole work abroad fettish with a TEFL course there) told me as much when I was there. I believe at least two of them had spent a good deal of time there. Throughout the time I worked there, I ran the gamut of different attitudes. Learning English could be a very leisurely activity or an utter nightmare. Unlike in Japan, there was no disguising how people felt about it. I wasn’t too keen on the early morning business classes, and in fact, neither were many of my students. Generally, the evening classes at the school were my favorites. Twice a week for 90 minutes I would stand up in front of a group of people and actually put my TEFL training to use. Although I usually didn’t prepare as much as I could have or should have, and perhaps I lacked imagination, I was genuinely concerned about the students’ performance. I used a variety of activities: writing, speaking, listening, grammar, vocabulary, conversation, peer review, role-play, forum, presentation, dictation. I graded papers, I got people interested, I entertained--I read about English grammar, educational theory, and second language acquisition. I actually taught. And generally, my efforts were appreciated. I never once received a complaint. In retrospect I don't feel it's going out on a limb to say that the approach to teaching employed by the Caledonian School felt far more academic than what I was made to do whilst (yeah, I said whilst) teaching at NOVA.

A typical working day at the Caledonian school consisted of waking up at 6:00 in the morning, taking a shower and getting ready, then grabbing a jablkovy zavin and cavu s mlekem (apple stroodle and coffee with cream) from a bakery near Namesti Republiky and trudging my way to class. The winters were long and cold. I’d usually try my best to force my eyes open as best I could, and just get through the morning lesson. I did a lot of work in the morning at various Komercni Banka classes throughout the greater Prague area. I had one seven o’clock class at Namesti Miru I particularly disliked, though I didn't mind watching the snowflakes falling on the Medieval Cathedral in the square.

Towards the end of my stay they had me going to a middle school once a week. It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated it would be, and the classes were only 45 minutes long. Typically, after one or two morning lessons, I’d go to school at Andel to have lunch at the café in the basement, use the internet, and plan the day’s lessons at the library. During lunch, I usually had the opportunity to meet with friends and socialize about students, lessons, Czech life, or make plans to go drinking that evening.

Social life:
There was a lot of drinking in the evenings at the school, and especially throughout the greater Prague area. Our haunts included but were not limited to:

· The pool hall near Lucerna and then another closer to Namesti Republiky when the former had closed down. The latter was a revamped ballroom with a vast coffered ceiling, bowling (pins-on-strings) lanes, darts, and a plethora of billiards, snooker, and pool tables. They also had Cerna Hora on tap, a cheaper, but still tasty Pilsner.

· The Lucerna dance hall itself, which I got dragged to more times than I’d like to admit. This featured cheesy-easy eighties music, with a notable focus around the late 80s and early 90s, when the wall had fallen and took with it all of Soviet Czechoslovakia. Those days must have been absolutely electrifying—you could still feel the remnants of the magic whenever The Final Countdown was pumped through the sound system.

· The bar Nevada—this sleazy herna bar was the natural choice for those teachers who wanted to flex their lush muscles after the Caledonian café had closed.

· The Reggae joint near Dlouha Trida, which a French teacher from Mali who lived in a nearby room in the days when I was staying at the Hotel Dum (pronounced 'doom') in Modrany, recommended to me.

· Vinorady. Despote spending my first week in Prague living there, in a 36-person dorm, and seeing the occassional show at the Acropolis, I didn't spend a lot of time in that area. I remember the adjoining restaurant as well because it had chairs hanging upside down from the ceiling.

· U Buldoka (At the Bulldog)—this was your average meat-market conveniently located near the school

· The bar Ujezd at the tram station with the same name. This was a drinking hole on the way back from the school next to the popular Bohemia Bagel.

· The cavernous wine bar, U Sudu was located near Vaclavske namesti. If you walked past Lucerna to the next intersection it was off to the right somewhere. My memory has become pretty foggy at this point.

· Battalion, this was a bar filled with shady characters located on Na Prikope, the wide shopping lane that runs perpendicular to Vaclavske Namesti.

· The Marquis de Sade. A large-plan open floor room that had apparently used to be a brothel. We spent many drunken nights at this place, but in fact, I only puked outside there once.

So, If the photos, links, and the Romantic idea of barfing on cobble-stone streets have piqued your interest in travelling to Prague you can find a good link for things to do and see here. And if you're man or woman enough you should try the yellow line pub crawl. That is, start at one end of the line and have a beer at each station and see how far you can get. My personal best was an admirable 16, though I was beaten by my roommate.

Because we all had the weekends off, I spent a lot more time outside of work with fellow teachers, and as such was able to create social bonds the likes of which were logistically much more difficult in Japan. I’d usually have a late afternoon class at the school, or some evenings I’d go to the Phillip Morris building at Karlovo Namesti. I worked at a lot of large companies including Unilever, Phillip Morris, ING, Citibank, the magazine company Hachete Fillipacci (which was nice because it was really near my house and was full of lots of hot women) and some smaller local outfits as well, after which we'd arrange to meet at one of the above mentioned dives, but mostly just the basement cafe would suffice.

As for classes, it sounds like a lot of travel, but it really wasn’t so bad. The main commercial area of Prague is not quite that big, so I found that taking the subway or the tram I was able to get from any of my classes in around ten to fifteen minutes. I was lucky not to get any airport classes or suburban middle school assignments. This convenience is, of course, barring the first five months or so of my stay in which I was settled at the above-mentioned Hotel Dum, an accomodation intially provided me by the school. It was nice of them to put me up, but not so nice to choose a place that was so far away from the center of the city. It took a good hour and a half to some places. And as the scheduled classes were very early in the morning, I had to wake up sometimes at 5:30 to make it to class. And if that wasn’t enough, the hotel was often full of wily German, Spanish, or Italian high-school students on class trips who were allowed to raise hell up until and sometimes past 4 in the morning. On more than one occasion I was late, but I always stayed later to make up the difference.

Work life in Japan is far, far different. First of all, there is nothing even remotely academic about the organization for which I work. They are far more interested in customer growth and retention. They could really give a damn if the students are actually learning anything or not, or if they’re getting value for their money. In terms of the quality of teaching provided by myself in Prague versus that which I churned out on a typical day at NOVA, there is no question that the Prague students bar none got a much better deal. At NOVA, it’s more like a language factory. You have eight lessons a day for which you are given no more than ten minutes to plan for between classes. They look at English teaching as no better than producing microchips on an assembly line or efficiently helping as many customers per hour as possible in a quality control queue. At NOVA, you are an interchangeable part. There’s not much room for original ideas, and I’ve found that the students don’t particularly appreciate it if you have them. English teaching is a binary code-based system of data entry and recapitulation. Every language act has a one-size-fits-all clearly prescribed formula. At times, you feel like you are programming a robot. At others, you're having a fascinating conversation with an intelligent, captivating individual.

In general, there’s seldom any art to your work. But the thing that brought me there and kept me there was that the money was far better (even taking into account cost of living) than in the Czech Republic, and I had debts that needed to be paid off. As well, I’d grown accustomed to the system, and became pretty comfortable in the routine. Moreover, despite the bleak picture I present, there are in fact a few advantages. First of all, you don’t have the extended day that you do in Prague. You work a little less than eight hours, and when you finish, your work is done. There’s no necessity to plan for the next day, because every lesson plan is basically the same with minor variations. You don’t have to grade papers; you don’t have to do the annoying small jobs, like typing up cloze activities (though I have tried this in some classes), or cutting out role play cards or objects to be used in a game. At first, the biggest disappointment to working at NOVA, despite the aforementioned factory feel is the necessity of having to teach kids. Kids generally are allowed to run amuck in Japan without the slightest fear of punishment or retribution. In fact, we instructors are forbidden to discipline at all; if they start acting up, we have to walk back to the reception desk like sullen younger siblings to tattle on our naughty, bullying brothers and sisters. In general, the Japanese yearning for social accord or conformity hormone so pervasive in Japanese society manifests itself in children from about the age of 7 or 8, sometimes earlier, though, of course, there are exceptions either way. But, there are those rare occasions where you get a glitch in the matrix, a student who won’t be quiet, doesn’t listen, says derogatory things about you right to your face, or who throws heavy objects at your testicles. Daisuke you little bastard! Even in these circumstances, all we can do is tell the staff to come in and deal with the child, who is usual reprimanded by a cooing admonishment or a candy-soft slap on the wrist. Kids’ classes at NOVA are largely a daycare service. The curriculum is designed merely to keep them busy, and is composed of such ludicrous target language as “It’s windy, so I’m fine.” It took me some time before I could develop the right approach and use of materials and games that the classes could become tolerable. You certainly do not feel adequately prepared to teach kids after your meager two days of training in which no kids are involved, and in which no veteran kid’s teacher classes are observed. I spent most of the time holding hands and singing with a 35-year-old. If you sit back and think about it, it’s pretty insane.

More on my Japanese experience later . . .


Friday, December 15, 2006

So today marks the one year anniversary of my return from Japan. One year ago today I was on a plane flying to Vancouver to visit my ex and check out the Pacific Northwest for the first time. Since I hated the 14 hour cramped uncomfort and customer diservice of the Northwest flight out of Detroit on the way to Japan back in April of 2004, I thought I'd break up the trip back home and see something new on the way. Having heard so many good things about the west coast and in particular British Columbia itself, I figured I'd give it a go (as my Aussie friends like to say) to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed. I had originally planned to do some snowboarding in Whistler but it turned out to be too far away, and then tried to book accomodation at the closer, less popular and less expensive Mount Washington, but was still unable to make the cut. In fact, from a financial standpoint, I picked a pretty dumb time to leave. I should have calcuated all the last minute bill paying I was going to have to do, perhaps waiting until after I had received my last paycheck before I left, because I ended up having to borrow 500 yen from a neighbor just to pay the bus fare to the airport. I had thought I would have just enough cash to get there, but after the train of utility folks had come to collect their final bills--a madenning revolving door of head scratching, sucking of teeth, bows, and thumping balances with index fingers-- I realized I had become (except for my last 1000 yen note) completely skint (as my English friends like to say). And what's more, I wanted to pay my final cell phone bill by credit card in the airport, but of course they don't often accept credit cards in many places in Japan (you would think that the airport would be an exception), so I had to tap out cash on said credit card just to be able to pay the bill.

Initially I arrived in Vancouver, met up with Sonia who was working as a travel agent, and took the ferry over to Victoria. From there we hopped on the bus to her place, dropped off the stuff and took a look around. Victoria, I thought was a fantastic place, though perhaps a little too small for my tastes as a place to settle down. And then we went to Tofino, a quiet seaside town that had plenty to offer in terms of relaxation and natural beauty. The air was so clear, the sunset so beautiful, and the experience of hanging out with the ex not nearly as weird as I had anticpated it to be. We toured some of the provincial parks on the cost, impressed by the thick pines as we watched the driftwood buffeted on the shores. All in all, it was a good experience, and one which to my mind was a much better way to slowly reintegrate yourself into your native culture after an extensive time abroad. After all, think of all the physical things you have to re-acclimate yourself to-- the time difference, the difference in temperature, humidity, air pressure, elevation, flora and fauna, allergens, etc.-- let alone the cultural challenges.

It's interesting when you realize how much is written about travel experience, and the musings of a culture from a foreign perspective, but you find very little about reintegration and the difficulties of overcoming reverse culture shock. Part of which is how naked your home culture becomes upon returning. The opportunity to travel and live in a foreign culture provides the opportunity to not only objectively assess that culture, but to give you a fuller understanding of your own. I came to places like Japan and the Czech Republic only to find myself ruing the seeming lack of any particular defining American culture when compared with the rich historical traditions the other places possess. Even our language is borrowed, and we have no truly defining native ethnicity, except for the Amer-Indian tribes dwelling on Reservations and in relative obscurity in the national limelight. As well, many of us non-native Americans feel cut off from our own cultural heritage. Many first generation immigrants see their children completely losing touch with their past. And the only thing that seems to connect us is our desire for material gain. Our culture, in large part, is defined by our materials: our cars, our stars, our pop icons, our brand names and restaurant chains. It's not surprising then that the things that most expats say they miss when abroad are restaurant franchises. I've been guilty of same of course, looking at my fourth bowl of noodles in as many nights and thinking, "Damn I could go for some IHOP pancakes right about now." At least Christmas is one tradition we manage to keep above being exploited for material gain . . . Bwa ha ha!!