And now for a total clusterfuck
The whole week, I tagged along with the adults and translated for them. This translation included language—very simple Japanese sentences—and culture.
For example, at the first dinner, the Wisconsin teachers noted the slurping, and I had to explain that in Japan, it’s okay to slurp your noodles and soup. It means you’re enjoying it.
I think it went okay though. I pulled out some random facts, and sometimes when they asked me questions about certain things, I could tell them what it was. And if I couldn’t, I could always ask the JTE.
As for interpreting language, I had to translate some easy questions from Japanese to English. Kyoto-sensei was hosting the male teacher, and he was fascinated by his American guest. He asked questions constantly—and sometimes he asked the same question over and over again, like he thought he was going to get a different response, or maybe just to make sure. Luckily for me, they were pretty easy questions to translate—do you like this, is this delicious, can you eat natto, have you ever been here, have you ever seen this, etc.
I also didn’t feel a lot of pressure to be completely literal. They were easy questions, after all, in an informal setting. I only had to translate from Japanese to English, while the JTE translated the other way.
Sometime before the Wisconsinites arrived, I was eating lunch with the teachers. I listened to their conversation, and at one point, I reacted somehow. They were all surprised that I understood, and I think that’s when they realized I could listen to Japanese really well. I can’t speak it, but my listening skills are actually okay.
That proved to be pretty true throughout the week—I could understand most of what people were saying or asking (or at least get the gist enough to translate for someone else). I was actually feeling pretty proud of myself. Even if I can’t speak Japanese, at least my comprehension is good enough.
So when the JTE wasn’t sitting near us, or wasn’t around, I managed to interpret without her. It was pretty great.
All of this was good for my self-esteem about my ability to understand Japanese. Unfortunately, it also caused everyone to overestimate what I could understand.
A few weeks before, she visited Kim (the CIR) at City Hall to talk about interpretation. I thought Kim was going to interpret for us, but apparently the JTE changed her mind.
“I’ll do it,” she said, over and over again.
“Are you sure?” I asked. I knew she wasn’t confident about her own English abilities; after all, she took me out to dinner one night just to practice English for the Wisconsin teachers. Great strategy, but if she’s uncomfortable interpreting, then Kim should do it for her. After all, interpreting is part of Kim’s job. (Granted, it’s a part of Kim’s job that she doesn’t like, but… At least it’s in her job description.)
One thing I knew for sure: Interpreting is not part of my job. ALTs aren’t required to know any Japanese at all, and no where in my contract does it say that part of my job is interpreting.
Nonetheless, the night of the Farewell Party, my JTE walked up to me and said, “You will interpret.”
Earlier in the week, when we visited the mayor, she tried to make me interpret.
“So you will interpret for the mayor,” she said.
I was horrified. Interpret for the mayor? That sounded like a disaster in the making. The mayor here is a little strict—even Kim has trouble interpreting for him. Sometimes he won’t repeat things, or at least speak slowly, and he uses really difficult words.
“I can’t do that!” I said. “I don’t understand Japanese!”
“Well, it’s part of your job,” she said.
“Um, no, actually, it’s not,” I said, fuming. “ALTs aren’t required to know Japanese at all, and in my contract—”
“Yes, but you will interpret.”
“No, I won’t.”
And then I think she ignored me and walked away. She did end up interpreting that time—probably because she realized that this was the mayor, and I would not be able to translate anything he said. Which turned out to be true—I had no idea what he was saying.
I was very angry that she pushed interpreter duties on me when I wasn’t able to do it properly, it wasn’t part of my job, and she had talked to Kim earlier and decided not to have Kim interpret! If the JTE couldn’t do it, then she should have hired someone to do it!
She made me stand up front with her and translate the announcements, which was okay, because they were already translated on paper for me.
But then, the host students and their families stood up. One person from each host family (sometimes the host students, sometimes a parent) gave a short speech about their experience and their new friend.
When the first student finished her speech, my JTE handed me the microphone. I just looked at her blankly. I had only understood words in the speech. Words like “fun” and “like” and “happy.”
My JTE took the microphone from me and translated for that student, while I stood there feeling dumb. She interpreted for four students, but finally, for the last four, she handed me the microphone and wouldn’t take it back.
It was fucking awful. I stumbled through translating, while my JTE whispered in my goddamn ear when she could have translated perfectly well herself. When Naoto gave his speech, he was practically bawling, because he was so sad that his new friend was going to leave, and I couldn’t do anything but stand there like an idiot. He had written his speech on a piece of scrap paper, so I looked at it for clues. Luckily his writing isn’t horrendous, but I still didn’t understand everything. Hell, he whispered in my ear, too, so he could probably have translated better than me. XD Sighhhh…
I was really angry and embarrassed. The students were crying and pouring their hearts out, and I wanted so badly to do a good job for them, to express their feelings so that their new friends would know what they were saying. But I couldn’t. I just didn’t have that skill. It sucked.
When that ordeal was finally over, I went back to my dinner table. I sat down next to Enoguchi, wanting to sink into the floor.
Enoguchi: “Good translating!”
Me: “NO IT WAS HORRIBLE.”
DX I mean, I think the students understood each other anyway—there was no mistaking their tears. At least they understood the feeling. I just felt like… it’s a shame that I couldn’t express their feelings in words well.
It actually made me want to stop studying Japanese, just to spite my JTE. TAKE THAT. I DON’T KNOW JAPANESE. NOW YOU REALLY CAN’T FORCE ME TO DO ANYTHING.
But that’s stupid. I’ve had loads more positive experiences speaking Japanese to people at the pool, at a store… I even managed to have a phone conversation in Japanese last week, when my package arrived. I wasn’t home, so I had to call the driver and arrange a drop-off time. It went well, actually, and I was super proud of myself. So there’s no way I’m going to stop studying.
It was just a passing spiteful thought.
Farewell Ceremony—Friday, February 15th
For whatever reason, Japanese people really like “We Are the World.”
It is, in my opinion, the absolute worst song ever. I hate it. I hated it before I came to Japan, and I hate it even more now, because I have been forced to listen to it over one hundred times since arriving here (not an exaggeration). If I could, I would murder Michael Jackson all over again.
Uhh… Not that I murdered him the first time he died… (shifty eyes)
In the morning on Friday, we had a farewell assembly for the Wisconsin visitors. They all gave speeches, and then we all sang “We Are the World.”
And then everyone cried.
It was so sweet and sad.
At first, everyone just stood there and sang, but eventually people began to join hands, and some boys formed a circle with their arms over each others’ shoulders. Kyoto-sensei, who had a really great time with the male Wisconsin teacher, put an arm over his shoulders, too. One of the students on the student council was next to the woman Wisconsin teacher, who took the girl’s hand and said, “You should come to Wisconsin.” The girl burst into tears and hugged the woman for the remainder of the song.
I walked around taking pictures the whole time, being an outsider. Because that’s who I am in this country. XD
Finally, my JTE gave me the signal to lead the Wisconsinites out of the gym. We walked slowly around the students, who rushed around to hold hands with everyone. It was like the Wisconsinites were celebrities, and everyone just wanted to touch their hands. The girl who was crying on the female teacher almost didn’t want to let go. It was so sweet.
I led them out of the gym, out of the school, onto the bus, and out of my life forever.
Thank God. ;)
The students made some great friends, and I could tell they were all changed by the experience—at least the Wisconsin students were.
It’s an amazing program. I hope it continues in the years to come.