Any ex-patriot will tell you how strange it is to live abroad during one of your country’s big holidays. “Strange” is, of course, a shallow and overreaching term – in some cases, there is a sense of guilt (“Woah. Was last week Thanksgiving? I didn’t hear anything about it …”) or a sense of loss (“All of my friends back home are drinking green beer tonight and I’m not!”). On the flip side, there can be a sense of exuberance (“Woo! I can send a package today even though it’s Memorial Day!!”) and a thrilling sense of playing hooky. On the really big, beloved holidays like July 4th it’s more of the sense of loss.
I love the 4th of July – especially in New York City. Rooftop parties, barbecues, watermelon, beer, the Macy’s Fireworks show … what’s not to love? I don’t really get homesick often but I will admit to a tinge of nostalgia in the days leading up to Independence Day. And as my friends here are a) not from America or b) from America and seemingly unconcerned with events back home it was up to me to celebrate the Fourth of July in Japan – in my own way.
The Fourth of July fell on a Wednesday this year – the day I teach my disinterested, disrespectful 12 year olds. Though I have stopped caring whether or not they like me, I usually am very concerned with whether or not they produce English properly. Them, them, always about them. Not on my country’s biggest holiday, fools!
I patiently waited until we had gone over the day’s target language and, as they yelled and hooted in Japanese, set out my materials. Pulling “How are you today?” and “What’s your favorite color?” out of them had been mind-numbing for all of us but as I began to write words on the board in red marker they looked up with interest.
Today July 4 is.
“What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the words on the board.
“Today … July 4th … is.” They said in a monotone.
“Today July 4th is?” I asked with an eyebrow raised. “Today July 4 is?”
More tittering. “Today is July 4th!” supplied Yoko, the only student in class who seems to care.
“Thank you, Yoko,” I said. I wrote the phrase correctly and then wrote, beneath it, “Today a great American holiday is.”
“Today is … a great American … holiday,” the class read.
“Good!” I said.
I then drew a wonky picture of America in the board’s upper left hand corner.
“Ha ha ha!” bellowed Seiya. “Chicken!”
“No, not chicken,” I said, pointing to my mangled red-markered country. “What country is this?”
“United States,” said someone from the back.
“Good!” I said.
(Now here’s where it began to get tricky – after all, how do you teach American history to people who barely speak English? My solution – pantomime, graded language and lots of cartoons)
A similarly wonky cartoon England came next, drawn in the upper right hand corner of the board. “What country is this?” I asked.
“England,” “U.K.” blurted the class.
“Good.” I said, scribbling. “What’s this?”
“Boat.” said Seiya. “Columbus!”
“Not Columbus,” I said.
“Ehhhhh?” grumbled the students.
“Watch,” I said, pointing to my eyes and then pointing to the board.
I was drawing my 3rd colonial settler peering into the woods with a question mark over their head when I realized that, for once, I had their – mostly – undivided attention. I heard mutters of “sensei” being snickered behind my back as I drew (“Sensei is tolerable today”? “Sensei is out of her gourd”?) but, for the most part, they were paying attention. Of course, I can only assume that their attention was in gratitude for not having to play the games they can’t stand but, nonetheless, I had it.
Exhilarated, I continued to draw – scared settlers peering into a forest followed by settlers building a city with big grins on their face – all the while eliciting vocabulary from them. They groaned when I erased the forest and the city and chattered in Japanese.
I drew again, next to England. “What’s this?”
“King!” shouted Seiya.
“King from where?”
(now for the extremely simplified revisionist history part … but give me a break – I had 40 minutes and the kids don’t speak English)
I drew an angry face on the king and the kids exploded into laughter. I drew a cage around America and changed the king’s face to an evil smile.
“Good!” I said, giving a thumb’s up sign.
Next: angry faces with “America” written over them and a word balloon saying, “No!”
“No, England!” I shouted, and since the kids had given me so little trouble, added: “Heck no!”
“No!” shouted the kids.
“That’s right!” I said. I erased the angry faces and drew another ship coming from England to America, with “U.K” written on it.
And then I drew the battle field. At this point, Seiya became very excited and jumped up to help me draw additional dying and shooting soldiers and I welcomed the help. The kids shrieked and hooted when I drew the first pool of blood coming from a dead soldier and when I drew a soldier holding a white surrender flag, laughed.
“England dead!” said Seiya.
Here, again, my history became revisionist but there was no way I was illustrating the formation of government and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. I wrote the date on the board: July 4, 1776, erased the cage from around America and announced: “America – free!!”
To my pleasure, several of the girls gasped: “Ohhhhhhhh!!” in recognition.
“History?” asked Yuko.
“Yes,” I said.
I then drew a barbecue scene with fireworks overhead.
“Watermelon!” said Hitomi.
“Beer!” exulted Seiya.
“Yes,” I said and, after scrawling a quick American flag on the board, cleared my throat. Even though Sean had threatened to kill me if I ended my lecture by doing this, I did it anyway.
I belted “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and saluted the American flag.
My kids snickered and at the end of my 30 seconds of patriotic pomp, Yuuki gave me the thumbs up.
“Teach-a!” he said. “Your speaking is … ” he looked to his fellow students for guidance and finally ended with, “… well!”
“Thank you, Yuuki,” I said. I glanced at the clock. As I had some time to kill I asked the students if they had any questions.
They discussed amongst themselves in Japanese and, finally, Yoko spoke for the rest.
“Hai!” she said. “How tall are you?”