Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Would Like to Be a Human Being

Yesterday I was doing a few telephone English tests for my former company. During most of each 10-minute test, I'm asking all of the questions to gauge the student's grammatical accuracy, listening skill, pronunciation, vocabulary and overall competence as a speaker. I assign the student a score from 1-10 (10 being a native speaker) based on how they deal with the questions. Most students score in the 4-6 range, though there are occasional scores of 2, 3, 7, and 8.

Usually, the students are pretty terrified at the beginning and then settle down as the test goes on. I always start off with the most basic of questions phrased very simply and ramp up the difficulty if they appear to be capable of coping with harder questions. By the end of the test, the student is about as relaxed as he's going to get and I always end with, "do you have any questions for me?" I wait until the end because the student just had 8 minutes of my questions as examples.

About half the time, the students won't ask anything. Most of the rest of the time, they ask some bland question about my hobbies. Often the men will ask if I'm married. On occasion they will ask my age. Both of these last two questions are taboo in Japanese culture when asked of a woman. There are subtle ways to ask them without being so blunt. These are the ways I ask such questions. I ask "when were you born", not "how old are you." This allows people to omit the year and just give the date if they are sensitive about their age. I say, "tell me about your family", not "are you married". This allows single people who are uncomfortable about their marital status to not discuss it as they can talk about their parents and siblings.

I'm not sensitive about my age or marital status. I don't mind being asked about either and take no offense when asked this question despite knowing these are considered rude questions for women. However, I do mind being asked in a manner which shows that the student is intentionally breaking with cultural norms because I'm a foreigner and he doesn't mind treating me disrespectfully. Yesterday, my last student of the testing session asked, "how old are you," and immediately started laughing uproariously like a deranged hyena. When I told him I was 44, he guffawed heartily at me again.

A lot of the Uncle Tom foreigners will defend this behavior by saying that he is "nervous". I've dealt with nervous laughter before and that's not what this is. People who are nervous laugh at the start of the test (and as time passes, they may continue to do so) because they are uncomfortable during the entire process. They don't suddenly start loudly bursting into laughter at the end when they ask a question they know to be considered rude in their culture.

I've also lived in Japan long enough to know that one Japanese person would not do this to another who was essentially a stranger to him or her on the phone. They might joke with friends, particularly if they were younger, but the idiot student who did this yesterday was in his 30's so he has no good excuse. Also, keep in mind that this is a business English test done as a requirement of the student's company, not some volitional, casual bit of conversation. The point of the test is for placement in business classes. The point of the classes is to prepare people for doing international business communication. They should be demonstrating some level of poise and professionalism if they can possibly manage it, not carrying on like a school kid.

Most of the time, I try and brush off this sort of behavior. It happens so often that I'd go crazy if I didn't. Yesterday, it really got on my nerves for some reason. As I recently remarked to another blogger in an e-mail message, sometimes I get tired of being a gaijin and would just like to be a human being again.


Emsk said...

I have a feeling that blogger was me! I, too, was asked if I was married or about my age and it struck me that it might be a little inappropriate if a man had asked, unless it was potential romance, in which case he might have good reason to ask (age shouldn't matter, but if we're talking kids then I have to get a move on!).

Like you, I don't have a problem answering these questions, but there are plenty of folk out there that do. While it's certainly their problem, I don't wised to be viewed as an on-the-shelf past-it broad (which I'm not). I don't even like being asked these questions blankly back home as they tend to carry the same meaning.

I was out with some Japanese friends once and some young women asked me my age and marital status, but I was told by a Japanese male friend that it's probably because their English is limited, and besides it's between women (he added that a man asking a woman her age is "not recommended!").

Incidentally, before I left Japan I was out with a group of Japanese ladies. I had invited the same friend, who is a guy I like, and he very bravely turned up on his own. Knowing that I liked him my friend turned the subject round to relationships and asked him, plus two of my friends, if they were seeing anyone right now - and then reported back to me that he was single! Back home you'd probably ask a guy, or perhaps hint, to find out, but my friend very cleverly did it for me.

1tess said...

Seems stupid for anyone to insult/harass/ridicule a person who has power over him! It seems less than prudent for a student to laugh at his teacher. You score the test, and such lack of good judgement on the young man's part would indicate he deserves a lower rating!
A good come-back indicating that you know he's a fool is what you need. Something like, some of us are old enough to know better, but some people will never grow up!

My daughter was once on a bus in Chicago, the only white girl surrounded by hispanics. Some of the young fellows were making suggestive comments about her appearance, in Spanish. When she got off the bus, she called back to them, in good Spanish, that none of them looked good to her and they weren't intelligent enough either.

Once some teenagers emptied a milkshake onto my car (why???) and laughed about how stupid it looked. I told them that stupid is as stupid does. And I asked how smart do you-all look? They apologized.

Orchid64 said...

Emsk: Indeed it was you of whom I was speaking. :-)

I don't mind being asked as long as it's phrased as a normal question. It was all of the carrying on which made it clear that he was enjoying being rude at my expense that annoyed me. That being said, they know very well that they shouldn't ask it (98% of the students I test are male), but they do it anyway.

Tess: Well, here's the thing. My relationship with them is not that type. I am scoring them for placement so I can't punish them with lower scores for bad behavior. The scores have to reflect their real ability.

The other thing is that it's my job to be polite to them at all costs. We're a bit like the people who do telephone support for computer companies in that we're supposed to absorb any abuse we receive with good grace. Being infinitely patient and bearing up to such things is part of professional behavior as a teacher here. You can point out that certain behavior is rude, but you mustn't betray any hint of annoyance or anger in doing so. You can only let them know it's wrong in the context of informing them not to do so in "real" interactions with foreigners.

The Japanese who interact with foreign instructors know this. They know that they are essentially "customers" and that they can complain if we are rude to them and that we are powerless if they are rude to us. When I was teaching at Nova, I would also get students who would sit face-to-face with me in the classroom and say absolutely personally insulting things intentionally because they knew that management would side with them no matter what. In essence, many Japanese know they have a free pass to treat foreigners like crap. Fortunately, most don't act on that freedom.

The thing is that they have that same freedom to treat other Japanese people like crap if they are customers. They just don't tend to do it so freely with other Japanese people because they have more respect for the relationships with each other. As people who sit outside of the network, treating us in a particular way isn't part of their way of doing things. It's more up to the individual to decide how to regard a foreigner where it's up to Japanese society when it comes to how other Japanese people are treated.

Thanks to both of you for commenting!

Dateline Osaka said...

Wow....You mean ADULTS behave this way?...It was one thing when I thought teaching a bunch of rude problem children was aggravating...You've actually had adult students insult you to your face at NOVA?...I don't understand the point of these people taking English classes if the entire point is to harass the teacher. Doesn't it cost money to attend those schools? How awful...

Orchid64 said...

Dateline: I don't think they sign up thinking they can be rude. However, a lot of students have told me that speaking English is liberating for them. I think that once they get into the situation and realize how much freedom they have, they act on impulses they might normally reign in.

Please don't get me wrong. This doesn't happen all the time. It happens a lot more often when speaking on the phone with students and with males. None of my private students have done this (or I'd refuse to keep teaching them). I think it is also more likely to happen to female and young teachers.

At my former office job, where we did a lot of telephone lessons, female teachers were always treated more rudely than males during the phone lessons.

1tess said...

Oh, yes, it's work.
I've been told not to critique our customers (retail situation). But people come in and think it's a "child-safe" place so some parents don't look after their kids. I continue to yell out to kids doing something dangerous. But I guess we are supposed to not bring bad behavior of childrento the attention to our adult customers. We are not supposed to say,"Don't RUN"; we are supposed to say to non-cognitive children, in a nice voice, "Please walk." And we should not tell the parents that their kids are out of control.
But I still THINK what I want. ("a walking example for birth control" or "glad I'm not going home with THEM!)
Somehow the snappy comebacks, even if they are silent, make me feel better.

Girl Japan said...

NOVA students- I hope they were under the age of 10 otherwise... why would someone who PAYS money insult a teacher...

Students aside- I went on a Job interview and the person or owner seemed cool but asked WAY too many personal questions like- you husband being an officer are you SURE he won't be transferred. And WHY do I need to work having a husband who has a decent career... um.. I wanted at the point to jump over and smack him and I find it hard to be FAKE, what was the last straw for me- he asked if I am sure I won't get pregnant within the year I am employeed, and then finally he asked if I can come give a trial lesson (been teaching for a long time) but found that insulting and his questions inline with "let us test you first"- I just don't have time for that crap.... ERR I am still flustered thinking about it.

Orchid64 said...

GirlJapan: Thanks very much for taking the time to read and comment!

The most memorable Nova student who insulted me was a female pediatrician. She was notable because she was relatively relentless about it. If I had had much faith in Japanese doctors, the immaturity she displaced would have severely shaken it.

I've never taught children in Japan. I worked at Nova a very long time ago (about 17-18 years ago) before they taught kids.