Thursday, January 04, 2007

Back to Business As Usual

Today was my first lesson with a student after, what was for me, a 4-day New Year's holiday break. Today's only student was the fellow I frequently refer to as "the little old man". I don't mean it disrespectfully though I can see that it may come across this way. He's both endearing in his quirks and tedious in his subject matter.

I think I come up with nicknames like this for my students because my husband will relate to them better when I talk about them if I characterize them so. If I refer to them by name, he says, "which one is she?"

"Little old man" (LOM from henceforth to save typing) is the most athletic in my lessons despite his age. That's not to say he's an athlete outside the lesson but that he's a perpetual motion machine on the sofa. He's constantly sitting forward and back, rubbing his legs, moving his arms, crossing and uncrossing his legs, and rubbing his face. When he leaves, my sofa cover is always twisted around.

Today, I asked LOM about his New Year's activities. He told me that many Japanese people spend the first day of the usual 3-day holiday at home (if they don't go to a temple or shrine) and relax. The second and third days, according to him, are spent receiving visitors or visiting others. Since he's 64, his status is likely more patriarchal and more people come to him than his going to them.

He said that 31 relatives visited him during the 2nd and 3rd of January but it was good because more of his relatives were women than men. I found this a curious thing to say so I asked him to explain why he felt this way. He said that women are more "cheerful" and make better guests whereas men are "calm". This isn't really a surprise to me because I've been exposed to more than my share of excessively cheerful women in offices but I hadn't expected this general personality trend to extend to family gatherings.

In general, I think Japanese women have an unfair burden on them socially to be "up" and to fill an occasion with positive energy. Men can sit back tight-lipped and do nothing to further the conversation or act in ways that further the atmosphere of a gathering if they so desire. Women feel rather obliged to be the facilitators of good relations and social lubricators.

That's not to say that all women do this nor that it is something which is entirely unique to Japan. Women traditionally are seen as responsible for being good hostesses even in western cultures but I think there's often more of a discrepancy between men and women in Japanese culture on this point because man are pressured to be "manly" which generally means being quiet, composed and assured and women to be "feminine" which generally means cheerful, subservient, and accommodating.

Some of my female students seem to be naturally buoyant and bursting with positive energy whereas others find the need to put on this front at work positively draining and tiresome. It could be that the ones I find "naturally" energetic feel obliged to put on the show for me and the others do not but it's not the sort of thing I can really ask. After all, I can hardly say, "you seem really happy and energetic in your lessons all the time...are you faking it for my sake?"

1 comment:

Tokyo Rosa said...

shari, i think you can ask these things (ie, whether a student is "faking it").

when i was in japan, i pretty much gave myself permission to talk about anything i was interested in if the students were high enough level. (with lower level students, it was a lot of conversation about shopping of course.) with intermediate/upper level students, i talked about politics, world war II and the atomic bomb, gender relationships and inequalities, domestic violence, perceptions of gaijin and other foreigners, dating and marriage practices, everything!

i also had close relationships with several japanese women (and men) outside of work who were willing to explain things to me. (which i think many japanese hesitate to do in the more formalized teacher-student relationship).

i say: if you want to know, ask!