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.