Teaching English in Japan – Interview with ‘Loco’
Today I want to introduce a fellow blogger and author.
Baye McNeil, better known as Loco, has been blogging about his daily life in Japan much longer than most of us. In 2012 his first book “Hi! My Name Is Loco And I Am A Racist” was published. This month (Sep 2013) his second book with the title “Loco in Yokohama” will be released.
Zooming Japan: Hi, Loco. Please introduce yourself!
Loco: Hi! My Name is Loco. I’m a writer, an author, a blogger, a teacher, an amateur photographer, and, well, a racist! Well, I should say recovering racist. I haven’t had a racist thought or done a racist thing in … ummm … months. OK, maybe not months but weeks. OK, OK, I fell off the wagon yesterday, when some salaryman decided to criminalize me and treat me like a stalker simply because I committed the crime of walking in the same direction as he. I should’ve been arrested for a hate crime just for thinking the thoughts I momentarily thought yesterday about the whole population of Japan based on the behavior of this one … umm … gentleman.
Anyway, I’m originally from Brooklyn New York, born and raised, and I currently live in the area of Japan where, in the not too distant past, my countrymen kicked in the door of this tiny isolated island nation and bellowed, “Trade or die! Isolation is not an option anymore!” or some vaguely diplomatic version of that.
Zooming Japan: I bet a lot of readers would like to hear why and how you came to Japan.
Loco: I made the decision while suffering from a severe case of Post 9-11 PTSD. All the soldiers on the NYC subways and these multi-colored daily terrorists alerts weren’t alleviating it in the slightest: Yellow meant it was fairly safe to go shopping and show the terrorists that they hadn’t destroyed our way of life, Orange meant shop at your own peril, and while shopping if you should see an unattended shopping bag, run for life, and Red meant Osama Bin Laden — or one of his many impersonators — was spotted lurking around the Midtown Tunnel wiping windshields posing as a homeless person. So shopping was out of the question. I don’t recall it ever turning green.
A friend of mine who was living here in lovely Nippon invited me to come for a visit. Fortunately I wasn’t too traumatized to consider air travel. I can’t say that I fell in love with Japan at first sight, but, being that this was my first time out of Ground Zero since that dark day, I did fall in love with the notion of “Not New York” if you know what I mean. If my friend had lived in Mexico I might very well be ‘Loco in Acapulco‘ instead of ‘Loco in Yokohama‘. (-;
Zooming Japan: What are some of the worst and best things you’ve encountered in Japan?
Loco: Ironically, the answer to both is the same: The People. The vast majority of which would fall squarely under the former. The ignorance and fear here of foreigners, particularly non-Asian and non-White foreigners, is generally at a level where one has to dumb down or numb up just to get through the day without screaming bloody murder and physically assaulting people. But thankfully there are enough of the latter, those people that fall under the “best” heading, to keep hope alive. The vast majority of them are not adults, however. They are the children, and in my capacity as a teacher, I spend my entire day surrounded by the best people in Yokohama. Truly a blessing! They are impressionable, reachable, and open-minded like they’ll seldom if ever have the chance to be, once these years are in their rear view mirrors. And as an added bonus, I learn so much from them about life, about myself, about the world and humanity. Without a doubt, kids are the best, here and anywhere on this planet.
Zooming Japan: In 2012 you published your first book “Hi! My Name Is Loco And I Am A Racist“. Why did you decide to write a book in the first place and why did you choose such a difficult topic?
Loco: I wrote it for a number of reasons. First and foremost being, it had been an ambition of mine since my youth to write books. What would be the subject matter of these books I was to write was the question. The intention to do so was never in question. The conventional wisdom says that writers should write what they know. But, I remember seeing an interview with a writer I admire, by the name of Tom Wolfe (author of Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff, and many other great books), where he says that American writers are learning from MFA programs to write about what they know, nevermind their external troubles, and this writing is generally boring. And, I agree with him, to an extent. I’m not a scholar who studied racism or sociology or psychology or anthropology. I’m just a guy with eyes and a sensitive heart and a fairly keen sense of awareness of what’s happening around me and within me. And that’s what I write about. It’s not as difficult as it might seem. The most challenging part is making the decision and finding the courage to do it knowing that there’s a good chance your name might be burned in effigy for doing so, for far, far too many people, for a myriad of reasons, are very resistant to the notion of racism, particularly here in Japan. Some even think we are in a Post-Race age, and racism has become an anachronism clung to by people who are either nostalgic for it or without it have nothing else to talk about.
But, once you’ve overcome your fear of that resistance, the most difficult thing is making sure the book is written as well as you’re capable of doing, says what you want it to say, and that it’s something you can be proud of and stand by (or admit to being wrong-headed about) when the fit hits the shan. That goes for any provocative or controversial subject matter.
Zooming Japan: On September 30, your second book “Loco in Yokohama” will be released. After publishing your first book, did you already know you’d be working on a second book so soon?
Loco: I certainly did. I had every intention of publishing this book even sooner than I have. The first book’s marketing and promotion took much more time than I had anticipated it would, which left me with less time to write and edit the second. But as soon as the effort to spread the word about the first became manageable, and whenever I had free time, I was hard at work on this one. Actually I have a five-book plan, with at least one book coming annually, if not sooner. One of the most useful things I learned from the handful of self-publishing success stories out there is that for us, with the disadvantages we have in the area of distribution, we definitely are in an advantageous position when it comes to when and how often we can bring products to the market.
Zooming Japan: “Loco in Yokohama” is about the life of a foreign English teacher in Japan, more specifically that of an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). As a fellow English teacher I’m always very interested in hearing about the experience of others.
I’ve always only taught at Eikaiwas (English conversation schools) and I noticed that your experience differs quite a bit from mine:
“Poor Takahashi. It was bad enough that she was being bullied by her colleagues, but now she had to figure out how to get a class of future nine-fingered yakuza, hostesses, and pachinko (Japanese Gambling) parlor employees to appreciate studying anything, especially something as utterly useless as English.”
We’ve all read the recent articles where kids (sometimes even teachers) committed suicide after being bullied. Would you say that bullying is a problem in Japanese schools?
Loco: I can’t speak for all schools, of course, but at the schools I have worked at, yes, it is. It was a problem back in the US, as well. There have always been bullies and will always be bullies. I think it’s part of the human experience … at all ages. Kids bully kids, adults bully adults, even nations bully nations. Hell, America bullied Japan out of its isolationist stance, didn’t it? I just think it’s our responsibility (as humans) to minimize it. How we manage the problem is the issue. Not so much the bullying itself. I have noticed a rather high tolerance of it here in Japan, though. I often see it ignored and I’ve rarely seen it addressed in any significant way. However, every time the students work on an art / school beautification project, Bullying and Racism seem to be the most prevalent themes in their art work. Hmmm … but without a doubt I think bullying is a very serious problem here, and though I don’t tackle it head-on — for I think it’s a much more complicated situation than I can fully appreciate — I address it a bit in this book.
Zooming Japan: The book also introduces several “interesting” students. I was really shocked to read about what some of them had done or tried to do. Here’s just one example where you talk about a junior high school girl called Mika:
“I was picturing Mika showing a butcher knife to one of her classmate’s throat, laughing hysterically the way she had when she kicked me in the ass the day we first met, establishing, at least for me, that her Happy Meal was shy of fries.
‘What the hell is your problem?’ I’d yelled at her that day, totally uncharacteristic of me. (…)
She wouldn’t move. She looked at me through black eyes that I was starting to believe reflected the darkness of her heart. An actual shiver went through me. She reminded me of a Stephen King story that spooked me when I was little, like she could be the child star of the Japanese version, ‘Children of the Soy Bean’.”
Of course, you’d get worried if a student brings a knife to school. Luckily nothing happened at that time. What was the worst thing one of your students ever did?
Loco: Well, the book has several stories that detail both the best and the worst the kids have done. I can’t think of one specific act that I can label the worst a kid has done, but I will say this. There’s a general obsession here in Japan with weight. Any fluctuation will result in comments that might be considered taboo back in the states. This is true of adults and children, by the way. They’ll just tell you that you’ve gotten fat (or lost weight, to be fair) and you need to be careful what you eat and exercise more, like they were your trusted primary care physicians. One person says it, and it’s tolerable. Two and it’s annoying. I have about 1000 kids at my school, and nearly 75 colleagues. You do the math.
Zooming Japan: I suppose students like Mika are the exception. Would you say that not everybody is cut out to be an English teacher (ALT) in Japan?
Loco: No, it’s definitely not for the weakly constituted, in every sense of the phrase. Emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally … the kids, and your colleagues, (and the country as a whole) will tax every facet of your being in ways I suspect most people are ill-prepared to manage. But, the bright spot is, if you are successful in doing so, the rewards are tremendous. Working with children is a calling, and it requires a great deal of not only patience and compassion, intelligence and intuition, but a high degree of toughness, I’ve found. Kids will challenge you at every opportunity. If you’re not up to a challenge that will often have you at your wit’s end, stay away from teaching kids. That goes for Japan, or most places I’d wager. It’s a tough job, period!
Zooming Japan: I think we all are aware of the fact that the English education in Japanese schools needs a lot of improvement and as it stands right now, it won’t “produce” any students with English skills of any sort:
“I re-introduced myself in Japanese to this Japanese teacher who’d been teaching English for over two decades, yet couldn’t make a single simple sentence and, despite her deficiencies, had somehow been tasked as head English teacher.”
As an experienced English teacher in Japan, what are your suggestions? How could the English educational system in Japanese schools be improved?
Loco: I’d say a good first step would be to modify the teaching of katakana or eliminate it altogether. Katakana is mostly used for loan words from other languages. The problem is the resulting pronunciation is often so far from the original foreign word as to be incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t Japanese or versed in Japanese. And even this is not the major problem. The most serious issue is that the kids are not being taught that this pronunciation is such. On the contrary, they often are under the impression that when they say a katakana-ized word, like for example マクドナルド (Maku Donarudo), that to English ears it comes across as “McDonald’s” and they have actually said something comprehensible. They should be tasked with un-learning Katakana English first. Which is virtually impossible cause it’s reinforced everywhere they go. Just trash it and replace it with English syllabary, I say.
Zooming Japan: Your new book – although I only got to read a few preview chapters thus far – seems to be interesting and valuable to anybody who’s interested in Japanese culture, the Japanese education system or who intends to become an English teacher in Japan. People like me – who have their own teaching experience in Japan – can compare your experience with their own. Did you have a set audience in your mind when you wrote the book?
Loco: I set out to write the consummate book not only on teaching in Japan, but living, loving and thriving in Japan. While the school is the setting for most of the anecdotes in this book, by no means are the themes and ideas presented limited to people interested in education in Japan. The segments you mentioned will definitely walk away from reading this book smiling and feeling like they’ve invested wisely for sure, but I wrote these stories to be entertaining, engaging and thought-provoking to the reader who has no interest in Japan, as well. As was the case with my first book “Hi! My Name is Loco and I am a Racist“, I wrote these stories to be read well, and read widely.
Zooming Japan: Alright. Thanks so much! It was a pleasure. I wish you the best luck with your second book – and we’re all waiting for book number three
Loco: Yeah, book three won’t be too far behind this one … unless of course this book blows up. Then it might monopolize my attention quite a bit, I expect. Thank you so much Jasmine for having me. It has my pleasure. And to Zooming Japan readers, thank you so much for indulging me (-:
On a personal note:
I got to read some preview chapters already and I can’t wait until the book is out.
I loved reading about the experience of a fellow English teacher here in Japan and the way it’s written is entertaining and exciting! :D
If you’re interested in Japan in general, but especially in teaching English in Japan, then I’m sure this book is for you.
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Events in Jan/Feb 2017:
- Jan 15: Matobakai (Kumamoto)
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- Feb 3: Setsubun (nationwide)
- Feb 3-12: Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi
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