Firefly in Japan, Part 1: Fired on my second lesson of teaching English.
I came to Japan 5 years ago with about $2,000 US dollars, very little experience, no Japanese ability, few marketable skills and no friends or contacts. My original goal in coming to Japan was to study martial arts for a month, but after one week living in Tokyo I made the decision to try to live here. After making this decision, reality set in. I would need to find a place to live and a job. Which should I look for first?
After one week of living in a hotel in Tokyo, my account was already down to $1,400. I didn’t want to find an apartment, and then get a job very far from my apartment. I decided to focus on finding a place to live. I found a free magazine called Tokyo Classifieds, and noticed an ad from a new company called Sakura House. I called them up, and they told me about a vacancy in a guest house near Tsukiji . I went and looked at the apartment – it was a tiny room with a shared kitchen, toilet and shower. It was very close to the station, and quite central in Tokyo. I immediately accepted, and moved in. Unfortunately, it cost a deposit of $200 and the first months rent to move in – a total of $900. I was down to $500, and I was starting to sweat.
I picked up Tokyo Classifieds and starting faxing, emailing and calling every employer I could. Most of the jobs were for English teachers, but I applied for everything and anything. I went to several interviews, but none of them worked out. There were various reasons – “no university degree”, “too young”, “too old”, “no experience”, “no qualifications”, “the position was filled”, “no Japanese”. Continuous rejection was pretty harsh on my previously huge ego. But I steeled myself and kept trying. In a week and a half, I had contacted 25 employers, went to 10 interviews, and had nothing to show for it except an ever-shrinking bank account – now down to $147.
I was starting to get a bit worried – what would happen to me if I ran out of money? I cut back on my expenses as much as I possibly could, and begin eating 5 rice balls a day. They were cheap and pretty healthy – I owe my initial survival in Japan to salmon rice balls!
Then finally, the call came that changed everything.
“Hello, are you available to teach a class of English tomorrow at 7pm?”
She sounded middle-aged, and her voice was very sharp and to the point. I gulped. I was down to $80, and things were getting very bleak.
“Um…”, I paused, as though I was considering my busy schedule. “I believe I’m available at 7pm. Where should I go?”
My heart thumped in my chest as she gave me the directions. I wrote them down and thanked her, trying to hide my excitement and happiness. A part-time job! This could change everything. This could be the start of my new life in Japan! I brightened up, and did my best to prepare for my first English lesson in my life.
I arrived at the station at 6:30pm to make sure I was on-time. I was wearing a suit kindly borrowed from another similarly sized occupant of my guest house. The neck was too tight, and I was feeling uncomfortable. I was all too aware that this could be my last opportunity in Japan. If I blow this, I could be forced back to Australia with my tail between my legs. I stood in the station toilet, looking at myself in the mirror. I broke out in a light sweat. The clock ticked around to 6:55pm, and I went to the designated meeting place.
At precisely 7pm, she turned up, and with a minimum of conversation, we began walking to the English class. She was a short stubby woman with zero tolerance for bullshit, and almost no tact.
“It is a business English class. Be as business-like as possible. You must be professional, but also friendly. You are here only because the last person suddenly left. Don’t mess it up. Do you understand?” Her voice cut through the warm Tokyo air.
“Um, yes, I understand. I’ll do my best. Um, I haven’t actually taught a class of English before, though,” I said, trying to keep the tremble from my voice. She didn’t respond.
We finally arrived at the class. She opened the door, and there were 40 Japanese business people in the room. I walked in, and everyone looked at me.
“INTRODUCE YOURSELF.” She instructed me, quietly and harshly.
“Ah… hello everyone…! My name is Firefly, and I’m from Australia.”
A quiet murmur broke out after I mentioned Australia. “Has.. anyone ever been to Australia?” I tentatively asked.
“I went to Cairns!” a voice called out from the crowd. Interestingly, as I later discovered, almost every Japanese person has been to Cairns.
“Thats great!” I encouraged. Soon after, we were having a lively discussion about Cairns, Australia, Japan, me, what I like about Japan, Japanese language, Japanese food, kangaroos, koalas – then all of a sudden, the time was up. I blinked, as I realized that 2 hours had passed.
The woman led me in a daze outside.
She fixed me with her cool stare. “You didn’t totally mess it up. I will wire 8,000 yen to your bank account tomorrow. Come back next week. Same time, same place. For next lesson though, you MUST MAKE A LESSON PLAN. Do you understand?”
I cautiously nodded, but I decided it would be prudent to tell the truth : “Actually, I’ve never actually made a lesson plan before….”, I began.
“I don’t care,” she cut me off. “Just make one. OK?”
“Got it.” I confirmed.
I walked away a flurry of emotions. I did it! I had my first English lesson. It was actually really fun. I got paid 4,000 yen an hour! Hmm , I have to make a lesson plan – I don’t know how to do that. But 8,000 yen will be enough to survive for a bit longer until I find a more permanent job! I could barely contain my feeling of elation as I walked back to the train station.
Sure enough, the next day arrived and 8,000 yen appeared in my bank. I bought a bentou (lunch set) instead of riceballs to celebrate. Then I set about my next task – a lesson plan. I wrote down some ideas on paper. I went to Shinjuku Kinokuniya, a huge bookstore, and read lots of literature about teaching English and lesson plans. I wrote down some more ideas. Then I asked some other English teachers living in my guest house for advice. I wrote down their ideas. I asked my Japanese friends about what kind of lesson they really enjoy. I wrote down those ideas. I called my father, and asked him “Hey, if you had to teach a lesson of English, what would you teach?”, I then wrote down his ideas.
In total, I spent about 12 hours working on the best lesson plan the world had ever seen. The lesson plan was detailed down to every single minute. I was extremely proud of my creation, and many people expressed their admiration for my fantastic plan. Finally, next Wednesday came. I borrowed the suit again, folded up my lesson plan, and slid it into my ill-fitting shirt pocket. I left the guest house full of confidence and bravado. I got on the train, brimming with motivation. I arrived to the station, and went to the same building. I found my way back to the same room, I unfolded my lesson plan, walked in……………
And found 2 men sitting down in the middle of the room.
“Oh, sorry. I’m the English teacher, I must have the wrong room.” I said, as I closed the door.
“Please wait! This izu English class!” One of the men called out.
I swung the door open again. The confusion must have been readable on my face.
“Tonight everyone is having project. Everyone very busy. We are only people who can come tonight.” He explained in halting English.
My mouth dropped open. I felt light-headed and sick as the 12 hours I spent on my lesson plan flashed before my eyes. I robotically re-entered the room.
“Oh… so just, you two guys?” I asked, trying to hide my disappointment.
“Right.” They nodded their heads and smiled at me.
“Well….” I said, and I handled my 12 hour lesson plan. “Since um, there are only two of you… is there anything that you want to learn or study?” I asked.
The silence was deafening for a very long 10 seconds, until the man on the right said :
“I want to talku… abouto my weekendo.” He announced.
“Ok, great!” I said, as I listened to him talk. Then the other guy talked about his weekend. Then I started talking about my weekend.
Once again, before we knew it, we were having an interesting conversation about Japan-Australia relations, bushfires, politics, Japanese culture, Australian hospitality, and suddenly my watch started beeping. 2 hours was up again! Unbelievable.
I looked at my watch, and looked up at them with a smile on my face. It was a fascinating conversation, and they both had interesting opinions and ideas. We all had so much fun talking about every subject. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid 4,000 yen an hour for this!
They looked at me and said “Thank you very much for our lesson today Firefly-san. It was very enjoyable! We had so much fun.”
I grinned at them. “I had lots of fun as well! Thanks guys, it was great. See you next week!”.
I walked out of the classroom with a spring in my step. I turned back, and they were bowing and smiling at me as I left. I waved back. Teaching English is awesome! Tomorrow morning, there will be 8,000 yen waiting for me in my account as well. Now I can relax a bit and focus on trying to find a job. I already did all the work on the worlds best lesson plan, I’ll just use that next week.
I went to bed with a smile on my face, and I relaxed and slept soundly for the first time in 2 weeks.
I woke up at 9am to find a missed call on my mobile. I checked the number – it was the stern woman who organized my lesson. She must be calling to congratulate me on such a good lesson. I excitedly called her back.
“Hi! This is Firefly. Thanks very much for organising last nights lesso-”, I began.
“You didn’t make a LESSON PLAN.” Her words cleared my morning haze, and cut me to the bone.
“Lesson Plan? Oh right, actually I did, but-” I stammered.
“They were very upset with you. They complain to me. It was a VERY BAD LESSON.” She was gaining momentum, and starting to yell at me.
“I’m.. very sorry. There were only 2 people, I thought I should-”
“I will pay you for last night’s lesson. But thats it. Don’t bother to come back again.”
“But, it’s a misunderstanding, hang on a second,” I tried to explain, but she immediately hung up, leaving me alone with excuses and an engaged signal.
Similar to being kicked in the nuts, the impact of the words set in about 10 seconds later. I was emotionally and financially devastated. I gulped as I realized I had $60 in my account – and no job to speak of – not even part-time.
I would later find out this is a common theme in Japanese culture. Most Japanese people choose to avoid confrontation, and prefer to complain about you when you’re not around. This is distasteful to me as a Westerner, but as a resident of Japan it’s something I have to respect and understand. Now I have a much higher tolerance and understanding of this kind of behavior, but it was a big culture-shock for me when I first came over.
What happened after this is completely unbelievable, and led to a series of events that changed the course of my life. I’ll try to write about it soon.
Credit: Firefly in Japan (inactive)