The Joy of Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Japan

By Michael Lin

Every year my wife asks me to write this annual Christmas newsletter to our family and friends back home. I dread writing this newsletter as I often think that maybe it is just easier to communicate through telepathy or silence. Perhaps it is the vast distance between where I am in Japan and where my hometown is in California, or the idiosyncratic Taiwanese American background, but for me it is simply hard to capture everything I want to say in just one annual newsletter. I want to let my family and friends back home know that I am doing alright in Japan and am having a good time teaching English as a foreign language to university students.

Even in the middle of a once in a lifetime COVID-19 pandemic, I still feel delight in teaching English and with life overall despite all the social distancing. Sometimes it is hard to express these thoughts though. Practically, it may not be prudent to appear overly content or conspicuously comfortable, because life back home may not be the same. On the other hand, it might also not be sensible to sound too uncomfortable either, as creating unnecessary worry or distress can be troublesome. I do want to convey that I think I am okay or as the locals suggest, “ma ma” or “so so” which leaves room for preferred interpretation. In this essay, I would like to share a few experiences on the joys of teaching English as a foreign language in Japan.

While we are in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic with endless waves of infections rising and falling and no immediate end in sight, it could be beneficial to be reminded of why we do what we do and what keeps us going day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. At the very least, I could use a reminder!

I had this university student this past semester introduce himself to me for the first time after an entire year of classes. We did not get a chance to meet until near the end of the spring term when our school decided to offer a few face-to-face classes after months of having everyone online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our time together was almost ending and here we were, touching base like it would have been at the beginning of the term. The student was an exchange student from China studying business administration, Japanese, and English. When we met, we were both surprised at the height of each other. “You’re much taller than I thought,” the student said. I said the same as an accurate view of height is not something that lends itself well on webcams.

The student explained that he was from Xian, an ancient capital of China famous for its Terra Cotta Warriors and asked if I had ever been there. I thought to myself, I have always wanted to visit Xian, but I had never been there. I responded, “I stayed in Shanghai a long time ago and had my first English teaching experience there teaching medical university students.” The student asked what I thought about Shanghai, and I said while I loved their Shanghai style xiaolongbao (little basket steamed dumplings / fried and steamed soup dumplings), I have always had a good impression of the place because of “The Bund,” a well-known Cantonese historic TV drama starring Chow Yun-fat, Ray Liu, and Angie Chiu. The student’s eyes lit up and said, “I know this show! Just about every person in China is acquainted. It is one of the most well-known TV programs of all time.” I was surprised at the student’s familiarity. The program was broadcasted over 40 years ago before either of us were born but widely considered a culturally significant part of East Asian television. It is like the movie, The Godfather, but set in Shanghai in the 1920s. I appreciated the unanticipated connection. I guess you never know what mutual experiences you might share while teaching English in Japan. These little moments make an otherwise normal day teaching EFL in Japan stimulating.

In the past year, I do not know how many times university students in my English classes have expressed how worried they are about their future. No matter what university, it has been common and frequent to hear students’ voices being worried, feeling upset, or be in resigned disappointment.

My third-year students were the most communicative. Perhaps it is the time when university life seems most fleeting and the pressures to move onto working life most pronounced. “Mr. Lin, I’m worried about my future. “Mr. Lin, I’m really worried about job hunting.” “Mr. Lin, I’m worried about my future job.” “Mr. Lin, I’m so sad my university life is ending soon.” Even with smiles or in solitude at home, belie the chasmic feeling that many are not quite ready to face adulthood and that the joys of youth may have been just beyond fulfilment.

It is not easy to learn a foreign language during normal non-pandemic times. It is a challenge when classes suddenly become filled with collectively masked students where no one can see each other’s expressions and oral communication become suddenly entwined with a need for proficiency in information communication technology.

Common topics in English language teaching like where are you from, what are you like, what is your family like, or what are you going to do in the future, may be drowned with the overwhelming sense of, “I just want my old life back!” Nevertheless, from a teacher’s perspective, the journey is rewarding when challenges are met, addressed, or navigated to the best of one’s ability.

Like playing a video game in the most difficult mode, it is not easy to have a dynamic class every week, but teachers keep trying until they meet their class objective. It is vivifying to figure out how to motivate students and how to keep an atmosphere fun and light despite on-going discomforts simmering in the background.

The last several decades have been filled with endless political, social, economic, and environmental turmoil around the world, with the employment ice age in Japan being one of noticeable concern to this generation’s yearnings of stable employment and security. Students do not feel as discouraged if their discomforts are mutually shared by others or better yet experienced by their teacher for the entirety of adult life. Distress shared collectively is a compelling experience, too disconcerting to state openly yet comfortably conceded privately as a source of encouragement.

Ultimately, what I appreciate most about English language teaching is helping classes come together no matter the circumstances or mode of delivery. The collective journey is the appeal.

One of my favorite aspects of teaching English as a foreign language in Japan is giving feedback to students. Especially with an on-going COVID-19 pandemic, when circumstances make face-to-face contact much more difficult than before, it is quite the experience giving tailored and personal feedback to students through technology. To augment in-class learning, students would usually be assigned a weekly or bi-weekly task or series of tasks like writing an English report, completing grammar exercises, taking an online practice quiz, making an audio or video recording, posting on a discussion board, or completing an online form. They would submit their assignment by a designated due date, and I would send feedback after reviewing, usually a written response through the school’s learning management system, but sometimes with a shared audio or video recording if additional details warrant addressing. If there is a lull in the class, I may sprinkle an emoji, gif, meme, or share a YouTube video to brighten the overall mood. While my speed of response may not be as fast as making instant ramen, yes this is a recurrent request, I do try to get something back to students as soon as I can or as school systems or network traffic allows.

At other times, I time the feedback in a way that cultivates greater student appreciation for delayed gratification. It is a good habit to learn to wait and cultivate self-control, is it not? Fancying the best-case scenario even if reality differs, I often imagine students getting my messages on their smartphone while they are studying at home, at the library or cafe, at their part-time job or club activity, or even outside with friends. In the midst of their life, they get a chime and react, “Oh, I got a message from my English teacher. He received my homework submission! Oh, and there is feedback also. I got to check this out!”

Most likely student reactions do not follow in this way, but I would like to think that what makes the feedback magnetic is the chutzpah of the approach as well as the prodding of a conversation that at face value appears unlikely but could be possible if student curiosity is peaked. Students are familiar that their teachers receive hundreds of electronic communications every day and are quite busy. They know how difficult it is for teachers to answer their questions that come at all times of the day. They know the time and thinking involved towards giving detailed feedback to their assignments. They get all of that. But it is the effort and the struggle of it all, the exchange where it is initially hard to see how the teacher approaches and orchestrates the feedback, that makes the process stickier and keeps students invested.

The last couple years of English language teaching in Japan has been quite like none other with a dramatic shift from face-to-face classes to masked face-to-face classes to a transition towards emergency remote teaching with many real-time, on-demand, hybrid, and hyflex online classes. For many, it has been an arduous journey filled with constant study of new information communication technology tools, apps, and learning of various learning management systems. Perhaps some feel “zoomed out” or have eyes that plea for a much-deserved break from computer screens, tablets, or smartphone devices. Others may feel the Japanese “gambaru / never giving in to adversity” spirit or Chinese “chi ku / eat bitter / eating bitterness” concept ought to be applied generously and virtuously no matter the challenges one faces in the TEFL profession.

Despite the challenges, when teachers witness students make progress with their English L2 skills and demonstrate further development in their intercultural awareness and empathy towards others, there is often a sense of satisfaction and relief. I have always felt the greatest compliment was when students have visited or were making plans to visit the places I have been to or where my extended family is from.

Despite the vicissitudes of daily life, perhaps many of us are looking forward to a day where we can all congregate without masks and be together, learn from each other, and encourage and laugh together. For many, the community of English instructors is what makes English teaching winsome and helps us keep going day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. My hope is that educators at this time would be better than okay and be reminded that there is tremendous joy in teaching EFL despite the many challenges we have faced and are likely to continue to face in the months to come. “Jiayou! / Add oil! / Don’t give up!”