The Rotten Mikan

By Andrew Innes

A happy teacher is a good teacher; the line wasn`t exactly Shakespeare. In fact, it was only slightly less eye-roll inducing than an essay which signed off with some kind of variation of `no English/club activity/beer/Korean pop band, no life`. The large, jovial Australian had made various points regarding the school`s philosophy after extending a beefy handshake; but somehow, this pithy comment had actually set Julie`s mind at ease back in the spring of 2002.

Training had been reassuringly low key. Kicked off by a jovial Australian with a paunch that would give Father Christmas a run for his money – his beer tank, as he put it. He was a self-confessed `lazy teacher`. Or, if you preferred more teacherly jargon, he put a lot of weight on maximizing student talk time, and he certainly weighed a lot. Students were not shy, there was always more to it than that. It was our job to, how do you say, read the air, see through the silence to the dynamic that lay beneath the veneer of polite smiles and uncomfortable silences. Jeff may have peppered his Outback patois with jokes that would have embarrassed a 1970s comedian in a Working Mens` Club, but he got his point across, and his points were generally fair dinkum. 

Teaching advice and lesson materials could, at times, serve as an adjunct to a larger narrative about who had been the drunkest the night before at The Tiger Pub, how exactly had John sustained that broken arm? Yet, despite this casual DIY approach to operations and cutting workplace banter, the dominant mindset was ostensibly that of pragmatism over iron clad rules. The ability to see the underlying dynamic of the room – who was dominating, who was likely to complain to the staff at the drop of a hat – that came with time and experience.

The dog-eared textbooks and stained carpet in the teachers` room belied the sense of community spirit and convivial atmosphere which permeated the small conversation school where Julie had started working some four years ago. Small touches around the school gave it a certain character and individuality: the collage of ex teachers on the wall entitled The Clover Graveyard, the sounds of `Turning Japanese` emanating from the communal stereo during class break. The phrase `politically correct` was still a few years away from entering the vernacular, but those who didn`t dish it back out never lasted long anyway.  At Clover English School, the teachers and students made the rules together, and craft knowledge was prized over the ability to teach the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.

As a training school, new teachers were shipped in from the four corners of the globe to Clover Himeji before being trained up, and sent to their respective branches. Training sessions were overseen by those teachers who`d generally been there longer than most, or simply had an apt for keeping the attention of a group of jetlagged teachers still reeling from the shock of the difference in climate. In one session, a trainer from the North of England demonstrated her unorthodox method of motivating a couple of students by explaining to them that their role play was currently showing on her imaginary tv. If they stopped talking, she`d turn it off or change the channel. Luckily, the students were good natured enough to have a crack, and saw the funny side of their thwarted efforts when she pressed the button on her invisible remote control to watch an imaginary Korean drama instead.

Of course, this was all punctuated by lunchtime karaoke sessions, cherry blossom parties in the spring, and the official end of training night out on Thursdays. The Japanese sales manager had a heart shaped graze on his face for weeks after one particular hanami session at the castle. As if punctuating the apogee of the night`s merriment, he`d attempted a somersault, and had landed badly. Prospective students must have glanced at it while he was pitching the virtues of Clover over its rivals and thought that it was some kind of birth mark. No, the reality was that we were all just not long out of university, and still very much in party mode.

Things pretty much changed in 2006. Jeff had gone walkabout, at least that is, he`d gone back to Australia and taken his banter with him. His spirit lived on to some extent when someone would occasionally retell one of his old jokes. We generally steered clear of some of the punchlines which would have been more at home in the 1950s, or perhaps the 1850s. But, despite his shortcomings, Jeff`s departure demarcated a fairly clean line between the old ways and the new ways. The new ways were ushered in one day when Julie came into the teachers` room to find a young man wearing a black suit, conservative tie held in place with a tie clip, and a face so cleanly shaven and shiny, you could almost see your face in it.

The first thing sign that something was amiss, was the absence of banter. The newcomer sat in the middle of the room, conspicuous by his presence, eating his bento and checking his phone. The silence was at odds with what had been up to now, a fun working environment.  It later transpired that he had reprimanded one of the Japanese office staff for not using the appropriate honorific language when he`d entered the building that same day. Julie thought back to the way in which Jeff had coached the same member of staff to say `G`day Cobber`when he met her in the corridor. Despite never quite nailing the accent, it had made her laugh. But this element of fun had since been replaced with a headache, and a prospective student was sitting in the waiting lounge while she tried to retain a modicum of professional detachment from the incident.

The second sign that something was amiss, was when a holiday request came back with parts of what the teacher had written circled in red pen. Despite the new manager being in the same building, the main memo had been relayed via text message to all the teaching staff.

To: All instructors.

From: Mike.

Re: Taking time off.

Requests for paid leave which do not utilize the appropriate language will be disregarded. Henceforth, instructors should apply for time off by stating, `I wish to take time off between (month/date/year) and (month/date/year). Should you have questions regarding this change, please contact [redacted] or myself`.

Julie immediately bristled not only at the steely coldness of the message, but the slapdash use of the bargain bin book of business bullshit with which it had been put together; `wish` for crying out loud. Written by a graduate several years her junior who thought that using `myself` in place of `me` somehow made them sound more professional. It was a reflexive for #$%s sake, not a personal pronoun. She could have gone into details but she`d only just about managed to shrug off the sobriquet of `grammar girl` which had plagued her first weeks at Clover. Teachers had come to her when they had a grammar question, she`d only responded in turn. She deleted the text before it could irk her anymore and decided to keep quiet about it until this joker was out of her sight.

It was around the time of Mike`s arrival that things which had previously blended into the background began to make their way to the fore. Julie began to notice the unpleasantness of the carpet in the teachers` room more. The coffee stains on the cheap tiles, physical reminders of teachers who had come and then gone back to resume their western lives. More than this though, she noticed the smell which had begun to permeate the teachers` room and corridor. The oppressive summer heat and humidity was bad enough, the air conditioning system being a relic of the 1990s. But that smell was like cat food which had spilled out onto the street on a hot rubbish day, changing and bending the very fabric of the air, so that passersby gave it a wide berth. Something Mike somehow seemed to achieve merely by existing.

Of course, the nights out continued, we still had cherry blossom parties, we still sang at karaoke, newcomers continued to be complemented on their chopstick skills. What had changed was more akin to a sense of original sin. We never knew what we were going to do wrong with Mike around, but we could be sure that we were in trouble for something. The school became a kind of pressure cooker of paranoia. A panopticon of self-regulating teachers looking over their shoulders, never quite sure what they would be pulled up about next.

“Have you got a minute?”.

It wasn`t a question; Julie immediately saw it for the clichéd interpersonal grammatical metaphor that it was. Had the exchange been stripped of tenor and broken down into a more literal sense, Mike`s request would have been more along the lines of, `I need to speak to you about something for which you are in trouble, please follow me so that I can chastise you about it in another room`. Of course, Julie had a minute, but the power relationship between the two dictated that she respond according to the appropriate genre and bandwidth of what was feasible within it. She saw the dialogue that was about to ensue as moving through a fairly predictable set of stages:

Genre: Chastising your staff in a professional manner.

  1. Preamble: use polite language such as, `please have a seat`. Smile for a fraction of a second, and nod, but retain a cold, professional air of detachment. Avoid small talk  
  2. Issue at hand: shift gears, project an air of foreboding dread by increasing the social distance from the instructor. Use lexicogrammatical features which suggest other actors, such as, `it has been brought to my attention that…`. The third person `we` serves to cement the suggestion that there are certain `others` who have witnessed the impropriety (Smith et al, 2016: 84).
  3. Turn up the heat: employee vagueness as a way to underscore the power dynamic bestowed upon you by virtue of holding a rank above the employee. Instill a sense of paranoia in your interlocuter by avoiding details; `I can`t go into specifics here` has been proven to be an effective line.
  4. Turn the tables: put the options in the hands of the instructor: `so, how do you suggest we move forward from here?`. Note that this should all be done while making notes in a small pad to give an air of professionalism (Turner and Jones, 2017).
  5. Wrap things up: mobilizing deontic mobility indicates that you are giving permission, and thus in control of the encounter: `I`ll let you get back to work now`.

While the conversation would differ in myriad ways from countless other staff admonishments perhaps taking place around the world at that very moment, the bare bones of it would essentially be the same. Put another way, she could hardly respond with some improvisational dance while expounding on the nocturnal movements of the Japanese Salamander. That just wouldn`t do; stick to the script.

`Sure, what`s up?`

`A student has commented that you`re boring in class`.

`How do you mean?`

Mike shrugged, `I can`t go into specifics`.

`Well, did they elaborate?`

`They simply remarked to the staff that you were boring in class. Just remember that if you were more genki, you`d get to do more sales. Anyway, I`ll let you get back to work now`.

`Genki`, full of beans, like those kids` teachers you saw on TV with their mulit-coloured hair dancing gymnastically while singing some sugary alphabet earworm. Julie had been feeling a bit burnt out recently, but boring? that was just plain rude.

It struck Julie that this brief chat was less about the passing on of wise words, and more about the way it underscored what Mike was able to say, and what Julie wasn`t. Mike was never overtly rude – he maintained a professional distance. She could be at home relaxing in the bath or on the brink of falling asleep, and something he`d said would suddenly play on her mind and start to grate. There was a Japanese word for Mike`s approach to workplace relations: `ingin burei`. It had come up as `superficially polite but rude in intent` when she`d checked its meaning. Mike seemed to hold a black belt in it. She couldn`t say that it was power harassment, but she`s wondered if this same loser would`ve spoken to her the same way had they been two strangers in a random pub. Probably not, but working with Mike was like death from a thousand paper cuts.

To this end, it took Julie a while to figure out how could she be boring in class when it was the level of the students, and admonishments not to ask personal questions that all necessitated that she stick to a rather narrow range of topics. This had boiled down to utilizing the awful textbook with its 1970s bubble permed characters as per the memo that `we must use it as the students have paid good money for it`. She had wondered whether that `good money` would be better spent on funding the acquisition of a book which didn`t come with outdated lessons on topics such as how to get a refund on a pair of bellbottoms, but had decided against airing her views in lieu of the current atmosphere of fear.

It later transpired that the same student had made a mistake as common as, `I`m going to the shopping`. What should have been relayed to the staff by the concerned student was that Julie had looked a little bored in class, not that she had been boring; lost in translation indeed.  Despite the matter being cleared up however, Julie`s spirits were low for the rest of the day.

As time went by, the very air in the school started to feel heavy, and time seemed to move like a clock falling through a barrel of mud. The atmosphere was as thick as the cloying smell of decay that had started to permeate the corridor and teaching cubicles. Julie would come into school, and Mike would simply be in the middle of the teachers` room eating his bento, checking his phone, and not making conversation with anyone. It was less what he didn`t do than what he did do. Cigarette pack sized boxes had appeared in the corner of the classrooms, cameras? and teachers were increasingly being asked if they `had a minute`. Like a marriage that had seen better days, it was all the little things that were starting to add up.

Julie had had enough.

She was in an izakaya relaying her story to her Japanese friend Koji.

`Maybe I`ve just been in Japan too long and it`s time to hang up my chopsticks and lead the normal life back home.` Low key music poured out from a speaker somewhere, and the waiter brought another round of Asahi Super Drys.

`What exactly is it about this guy that everyone dislikes so much?` asked Koji.

`It`s just that he seems to see us as inherently bad teachers. He always seems to be waiting for us to make a mistake so that he can send out another of his tedious memos. It`s like working in North Korea`.

`Ah, sounds like a, how do you say, rotten mikan ne`.

Mike was a rotten mandarin thought Julie, a bad apple; his malaise spreading through the whole barrel. He had a kind of reverse Midas touch where even the air around him just seemed to hold a tension, like it was holding its breath. She mentioned the bad smell which had foreshadowed his arrival, like a harbinger of things to come.

`It`s like there`s someone in the same room with really bad halitosis but you can`t tell who it is. Except, it`s not just a smell, it`s almost like a kind of tangible presence`.

Koji hadn`t understood everything that Julie had said, but he got the main point.

`Sounds like Mr Sato, the sales manager ne`.

This seemed to lighten the mood and Julie felt better for having someone to rant about Mike to.

The next day, Julie was walking down the indoor shopping precinct which housed Clover English School feeling somewhat hungover. The recent cash injection which had seen the surrounding city brought into the 21st hadn`t quite reached this part of town. Shops selling cds and cassettes, jostled with clothes shops for Japan`s ageing population, and various eateries vying for your attention. A susurration overhead caught her attention and she angled her head to the beams supporting the dirt encrusted ceiling. She`d never noticed before, but there seemed to be something living up among the network of rafters. A pair of eyes seemed to burn orange, there was a flash of colour, and then it was gone. Shoppers trudged along unaware of the life which existed above their heads, their eyes turned downwards to mobile phones as they were. She tried to rub the hangover out of her eyes and whatever was up there was soon forgotten.

Back at the school, the smell had started to get worse. Some of the banter was back, and someone asked a geeky teacher named Colin if he`d been eating sprouts for lunch again. Colin was a good sport and served a cutting remark back to its perpetrator, but Mike`s presence just made any kind of joke seemed like inappropriate work behavior or `idle chat` as he put it. He was in the middle of the room as usual, not talking, taking up space, and tapping away on his phone. Julie ignored him and went over to check her schedule for the day, next to which she found a staff memo pinned to the wall. Julie immediately speculated on how it had been put together.

Genre: an intimidating business memo.

  1. Use the passive voice. Despite only outdated style guides recommending the passive voice for everyday writing, the advantage over the active voice for formal writing is that the agent is hidden and thus, attains an air of `professional malevolence` (Turner, 2019: 152).
  2. Pepper your text with set phrases. Rather than simply saying, `thanks`, why not say, `thank-you in advance`. This will set you apart from your less educated subordinates who are more likely to sign off any group message with `cheers guys`.
  3. Rather than referring to your staff as `teachers`, instead use the term `instructors` to reinforce that they are not `real teachers`.

To: All instructors.

From: Mike.

Re: Professionalism in the workplace.

It has come to our attention that a number of instructors have been falling below the bar of what is considered to be the appropriate level of professionalism in the workplace as of late. A number of issues have been raised which have been outlined as follows:

  • Instructors are simply going through the motions.
  • Instructors are checking their watches in class too often.
  • Instructors are not adequately utilizing the textbook, and are instead, making idle chat.
  • Instructors are failing to use the Clover approach.

Students pay a lot of money to come to this school and should be provided with a commensurate five-star experience. While we do not currently feel the need for refresher training, your implementation of the above points will be reflected in your contract appraisal. Should you require further clarity, please contact (redacted) or myself.

Thank-you in advance.

Julie didn`t know where to start with this one. Was the fact that students were paying through the nose to come to Clover their fault? And there was a reason that teachers were surreptitiously checking their watches. Mike had instilled in them the idea of `timed stages`. The teaching staff had been drilled on exactly how much time they should spend on each stage of the lesson. These timed stages could easily run over due to a particularly verbose student. But, according to Mike, timing was timing and it was there to be observed and followed. Also, what was the `Clover approach`? It was as though Mike was just making things up and purposely keeping them vague to keep us on our toes. She needed some fresh air.

She stepped out of the building and into the bustling shopping arcade. Whatever she`d seen the other day had since gone. Had she imagined it? She had been hungover and missing her glasses that day after all. A text message lit up the screen of her folding J-phone.

`Oh god, what now` she thought. It was Mike again.

To: All instructors.

From: Mike.

Re: Health and Safety.

Due to the foul emanation surrounding the teachers` room, maintenance work will be carried out to ascertain the source forthwith. The current situation is not conducive to the maintenance of standards of health, hygiene and safety for staff and students alike, and anyone found to be responsible with be dealt with accordingly.

Should you require further clarity, please contact (redacted) or myself.

Thank-you in advance.

`Anyone found to be responsible`? Was Mike suggesting that it was some kind of teacher prank? How old did he think they were? Walking into the school, the smell grew stronger as Julie approached the teachers` room. The staff had used some kind of rose perfumed air freshener, and the smell of decay had taken on a sickly-sweet top note which somehow made it even worse.

Despite the foul smell, Mike was sat there tapping away on his phone, barely looking up as Julie walked into the room. He looked as though he had work to do. She hastily searched her personal locker for her glasses while a man wearing overalls stood on a set of stepladders to investigate a brown mark which had begun to spread across one particular ceiling tile. It was a little stiff, the edges made stiff by the accretion of something viscous which had gradually formed into a kind of foul-smelling glue, but he was able to shift it with a little effort.

While this went on, Mike continued what he was doing on his phone, except that he appeared to be a little disgruntled that the man was breaking his concentration. The man in overalls was talking with his assistant about the recent Hanshin Tigers game and their chances of winning the league this season. This was what Mike had termed `idle chat`. He made a mental note to ask the Japanese manager to have a word with the maintenance company regarding company policy.

Frantically scrambling around her locker, Julie found her glasses and put them on.  In retrospect, this was good timing considering that it allowed her to get out of the way almost the same instant as what happened next. For, as the tile was pushed aside, gravity was no longer prevented from allowing the bloated corpse of a cat that had lain dead for several weeks to remain in place.

The dead cat actually described an arc as it swung like a metronome before gravity won the battle and delivered the payload from what had been its sticky death bed. It was unfortunate that Mike had been sitting in his usual place, in the middle of the room, tapping away on his phone. It was unfortunate the way the cat`s stomach had split open as it landed and its innards sprayed outwards in all directions. Mike was unfortunate in that he seemed to receive the lion`s share of the cat`s viscera. Of course, the man on the ladder had got out of the room soon after and fetched the sales staff. Towels were proffered, but of course, nobody really cared about Mike. The faces were those of concern, but they turned to ones of laughter later when they all went out to the local izakaya later that night, without Mike.

The commute home must have been a real stinker of a journey that hot August night.

The shopping arcade in Himeji is still there, Clover English School is now a shabu shabu restaurant, I don`t know what became of Mike. People seem even more engrossed in their phones these days, and less aware of their surroundings. But if you ever do come to the shopping precinct in Himeji and happen to look up, you might just see one of the many stray cats which perhaps decided that the rafters made better real estate than the peripheries of the castle. Of course, I can`t guarantee you will see one. They have a tendency to disappear.