Monday, July 14, 2008


Snaps from my Cross-Cultural Communications class.

These students are second-year students, which means they are a heck of a lot more outspoken, funny, rowdy, and unimpressed-or-scared-by-the-foreign-teacher than most first-year students. (Though all were quite enjoyable to teach...)

Friday, July 11, 2008


More than a few Japanese university students have had the habit of sneaking into my classes more than a little bit late -- two, four, ten or more minutes past the beginning of class, grinning sheepishly, bowing their head, waiting for another one of my rants. The first three, four weeks, I said nothing, but time after time, in class after class, students would loudly open the door, fumble for their student card, walk to the front of the room and hold it in front of the sensor pad which would automatically bleep them present, while I hovered in front of the chalkboard, smeared in blue and white and pink powder, trying to remember what I was supposed to be teaching.

Since Japanese university students often seem like children, coddled and innocent, I had to remind them: This is, in essence, your job. You can't be five, ten, twenty minutes late. This ain't junior-high anymore. To which they would nod, nod again, nod once more for good measure, and then proceed to be late again the following week. (My favorite example: a student wandered into one of my classes after six weeks or so, a student I barely even recogized. When I asked him why he never came, he said: "This class is too early for me." It was a one p.m. class. He said it took him two hours to get to school. When I asked him where he lived, he said Fujisawa, which coincidentally happens to be where I live, and it sure as hell doesn't take two hours to get to school; one hour, door to door, tops. I nabbed him head-on. I told him if he missed any more classes, even one, he would fail. He nodded. Then asked: "Have you ever been to the Yukon? I was there last summer. So cool!" Cue the sensei's sigh...)

So today, exam day, I had a different student rush into class thirty minutes after class started. I had given his classmates some study time; the exam hadn't begun.

"You can't be thirty minutes late on exam day!" I said. "If the test had started, you'd have missed most of it!"

He was seated by now, smiling and nodding, and I noticed his shirt for the first time since he'd hurried into the room.

It was white, with big, bold, bright red letters streamed across the front: "SORRY I'M LATE!"

I laughed, my rant cut off mid-stream.

"Did you wear that because you knew you were going to be late?"

He smiled, and nodded, and smiled again.

I pointed it out to the class.

Everybody roared.

And I had a minor epiphany: Only in Japan.

Everybody always says "Only in America", but this was one of those moments that seemed quintessentially Japanese. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was the image of this student in his little apartment, rushing to gather his things, realizing he'd never make it on time, deciding that he'd better wear his "SORRY I'M LATE!" shirt to ease whatever steam I would be sure to blow off. That strangely impenetrable sense of Japanese humor mixed with the obligatory politeness of the culture. He probably figured I'd be talking at the front of the room when he walked in, and then I'd see his shirt, and all would be forgiven.

And he was right. It was.

I thought back to the past eight weeks, as I learned what it was like to teach thirty-plus students in a class, in a Japanese university, five days a week. I remembered the speeches my Writing class had given earlier this week, and how I'd planned to write a separate blog on how good they were, how confident, how assured.

Thirty students talking about water polo, and partying in Mexico City, and why smoking is terrible for you, and how homestays in New Zealand and Canada and Eureka, California changed their lives forever, and how Christian rock is the key to salvation and a really rockin' night, and why volleyball is a great sport, and why one student's South American mother is her personal hero for having had such a difficult life. Anyone who thinks Japanese are homogenous should have sat in that class and listened to teens on the cusp of adulthood expressing themselves in a foreign tongue about what mattered to them most. It made the whole semester worthwhile, those speeches did. I don't know why. I had similar sentiments teaching university students in Cambodia a few years back. Maybe it was because I'm only a decade and change past where they are right now. It seems fresh, and familiar. Or perhaps it was simply because the students revealed themselves to be who and what they are: good, funny, curious, inquisitive, eager young adults.

And that shirt, to cap it all off.

So, yes, only in Japan would a student wear a "SORRY I'M LATE!" shirt with such casual, good-natured zeal.

Me in my suit, he in his shirt, with a classful of laughs. A sunny day, in a foreign land, with summer in full swing.

There are worse ways to make a living.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable is ostensibly a business book, yes, about how unforseen events change our lives in ways that are impossible to predict, let alone manage, but he chooses to conclude his cheeky analysis with a couple of passages I found surprisingly, well, moving.

'Black swans' are those cataclysmic societal and economic events that nobody could have predicted: 9/11, the rise of the Internet, Pauly Shore's career, etc. (Everybody thought all swans were white, until black swans were discovered in Australia -- an event nobody expected, but one that nevertheless happened.)

The entire book is a challenge to conventional thinking; it's sly, cheeky and even laugh-out-loud funny at points, but it can still get a little technical for a moron like me, who dropped out of Grade 10 Accounting and never looked back. (Only because a) I didn't need the credit and b) the teacher reminded me of Jon Lovitz. I love Jon Lovitz, but the resemblance was seriously uncanny. The fact that I didn't understand anything he was teaching? That didn't help either...)

I was therefore pleasantly surprised by this passage, which is right around the corner and across the street from my own out-of-the-way philosophical alley:

...My classmate in Paris, the novelist-to-be Jean-Olivier Tedesco, pronounced, as he prevented me from running to catch a subway, "I don't run for trains."

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to catch trains, I have the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that's what you're seeking.

You stand above the rat race and the pecking order, not outside of it, if you do so by choice.
Quitting a high-paying position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved (this may seem crazy, but I've tried it and it works). This is the first step toward the stoic's throwing a four-letter word at fate. You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself.

Mother Nature has given us some defense mechanisms: as in Aesop's fable, one of these is our ability to consider that the grapes we cannot (or did not) reach are sour. But an aggressively stoic prior disdain and rejection of the grapes is even more rewarding. Be aggresive; be the one to resign, if you have the guts.

It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.

In Black Swan terms, this means that you are exposed to the improbable only if you let it control you. You always control what you do; so make this your end.

Since the whole book is about how so much of life is beyond our control, I love the fact that he reminds us, near the end, that we can, at the very least, control what is within our grasp; we can attain 'a true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior', if nothing else. We can choose to watch the herd go by and instead determine our own path, if we so choose, if the herd is headed somewhere we do not want to go in the first place.

And there's more:

...all these ideas, all this philosophy of induction, all these problems with knowledge, all these wild opportunities and scary possible losses, everything palls in front of the following metaphysical consideration.

I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuff, or a rude reception. Recall my discussion in Chapter 8 on the difficulty in seeing the true odds of the events that run your own life. We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.

Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of the earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don't be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth -- remember that you are a Black Swan...

An absolutely brilliant way to tie things up, I think. An entire book detailing how erratic and unpredictable life is, filled with Black Swans awaiting us at various undefinable points in the future, and yet, here we are -- each of us, together, Black Swans one and all, improbable beings that somehow managed, against all the odds, to be born, here, at this time.

Think of the size of space, and the width of the universe, and the mass of the earth, and what would not have happened had your particular parents not met on that particular day, or not made love on that specific night.

And yet somehow you emerged, more or less intact.

Somehow you endured, up until this very moment.

Black swans await us at every turn, certainly, but there are trains we do not have to run to catch, and destinies we can shift and tilt according to our will.