Sometimes in the morning, especially when I can’t find the remote control to change the channel, I will see some kids program on TV that is teaching English to youngsters. There is a fair bit of sing-song voices, some overly exaggerated gesticulation on the part of the hosts, and some jumping about which far exceeds my early morning tolerances.
But my kids are watching it, so I have my coffee in grouchy old-man silence, scratching the head of one of our dogs who no doubt has found her way onto my lap, eyes gazing upward expectantly, hoping, waiting for breakfast.
And then it happens.
The English program hosts are now at a daycare. They are outside with the kids. The kids are in rows. The hosts are in the front. The daycare staff are staggered around the kids. The calisthenics begin. The music starts. The kids start to shuffle, jiggle, and contort.
“How are you?”, bellow the hosts, arms askew and walking “like an Egyptian”.
“I’m so happy!”, screeches the response. Bodies now raising one leg and arms flapping akimbo.
They repeat. The kids are walking like Egyptians, screaming… something. I can’t understand it. They repeat again. The kids are raising legs with arms akimbo. They are hysteric now. The shrill English conversation session resembles a hospital ward of patients experiencing painful seizures. I can’t hear a single recognizable English sound. They repeat again. The daycare staff look confused. They do not walk so well like Egyptians.
“That’s….. GREAT!” shout out the frenzied hosts. They leap. They land in frozen poses. The camera lingers just a couple seconds too long before cutting away. The hosts, in that final fleeting moment, lose some of the brightness in their eyes. A thought…. a lonesome brief pause flickers across their faces….. Something is slipping away. Their eyes darken ever so slightly.
I can read what it means.
They are quietly whispering through the television screen to me.
“Why, for the sweet love of all that is soy-flavored, am I doing this?”, they seem to ask.
I know the reason why. Even if they don’t.
These poor wretched souls, these lost sheep of eikaiwa glory, are stuck in a groove. Like a vinyl record with a trapped needle, skipping, skipping, skipping…. they are products of a 1990’s Frankenstein creation of “What English education is supposed to look like.” They are the doomed souls of Dante’s ESL Inferno, that is, if Dante was an ESL teacher instead of a brilliant poet. They were programmed, or told to believe that in order to be an English teacher of any calibre. you must be…. GENKI.
Ooooof…. there is that word. Genki.
What is this “genki”? Is it a virus? Is it a disease? Is it the Japanese sparkly season of our discontent? It may be, and more. To be “genki”, for so many language schools in Japan, means that you have some element that is marketable, and sellable, for eikaiwa schools to provide their clients. It means that you will open your eyes a little wider. It means that you will use gestures in a more flamboyant manner. It means that the pitch of your voice will be raised, as if the hair on your head was being ever so slightly pulled upward. You will smile. You will show more teeth, right back to your molars if necessary. You will nod a lot. You will not laugh, but you will guffaw, and do so with gusto. You will stand in poses where your feet are planted further apart than they normally would be, as if you were preparing an oratory of a great genki Greek tragedy.
In short, you will be the overly cheery monster that lurked in your own shadow. I am not sure if Camus had this in mind, but there it is, lurking, like an exaggerated lovable rascal that was hiding in the subconscious of your brain. And now you have summoned it forth, and brought it into the light of day. It smiles, in all its toothy glory. Like rows of brilliantly white styrofoam lined up in an artificial plastic mouth, gaping, and lost.
You have become genki.
It may be good to be of good cheer, and to be mirthful. A mercurial presence can be much needed in an otherwise dreary classroom, and far be it from me to poo-poo on anyone’s genki parade. But I have concerns, grave concerns, about an over-extended identity of “genki-ness”, that may breed more trouble than what may have seemed a meager price to pay for one’s human dignity.
To be formally genki at all times when you interact with your students here in Japan means that you cannot actually be the person you are, the person that is good all on your own. It is a sign that you may feel that your truer self is unworthy of normal public and human interaction. It is a sign that you feel that Japanese people have a continuous stream of expectation of you and your outward behavior. It is a sign that you believe that Japanese people do not possess the capacity to just see you, and accept you, as the natural person that you are. It makes both you, and the people you are now surrounded with, into strange creatures, and not humans at all.
All of that is complete and utter nonsense.
In my, going on 20 years, experience of living here, people in Japan are much like people anywhere else. They have things they like. They have things they don’t like. They have things they need to do, and places they need to go. They have families, and loved ones, and dreams, and trouble, and crushing disappointments, and angry in-laws, and flaws, and virtues, and vices, and a sense of humour. Just like everyone else on this planet.
Why do you need to treat them different? Why do you need to treat yourself different in order to live here?
But then there is that tricky thing about dealing with your eikaiwa task-master. They want you to “be genki”, they want you to be like the creatures they witness on children’s television in the morning. They expect you to be genki, and they believe that they need you to be genki. They want you to …. embrace your genki-ness.
I suppose, that while you need to get yourself settled at first in Japan, you will need to take the job that you have in front of you. You will need to be very cheerful and clown around a bit with the kids. You will need to be goofy and strut around a bit with your best “Gee willikers” or “Gosh darnitt” expressions to get through the day. What are you going to do? Protest? That will simply hasten you towards unemployment, or needing to jump ship to a hopefully more agreeable lateral job.
There may be no solution…. well, no solution for people who are stuck in that genki-groove. For my part, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that the market is changing. I am hopeful that the antiquated ossified notion of what it means to be a foreign teacher in Japan will be ground to dust. I am hopeful that students and schools and eikaiwa employers will see that gentleness, authenticity, truthfulness, honesty, goodness, and a cheerful heart will win the day, and truly inspire the next generation of Japanese students.
I am hopeful that the English teacher can simply “be” and not “become”, as in become the thing they ought not, a false shadow of a darkly lit clown.
We see signs of this shift. We see signs in some of the English language programming. Yes, there are still the old crusty “genki” standbys, and they will be with us for some time yet to come. But there are moments, and good teachers, and thoughtful people, and common sense that is starting to shine through cracks and blot out the vapid and empty genki presentations we have seen far too much up until now.
As I said, I am hopeful. We will, for our part, do our best to simply “be” and not “become” the sum of expectations of those around us.
Hmmm…. I am glad I got that off my chest.
I am not completely sure where this blog came from, but it has been settled in the back of my mind for some time. Thanks for dropping by and giving it a read. Much appreciated, and if this speaks to you as a language teacher looking for a place that will measure you by how well you are as yourself with kids, rather than how you must paint over your own character, I hope you will drop me a line. I would love to hear from you.
In the meantime, keep your stick on the ice and keep between the ditches.