It became a habit of mine to come to class with a Coke in my hand. For more than a year, my students told me that drinking Coke as much as I did was bad for my health. I always considered this sort of admonishment a good test of their English ability, especially when I would ask for reasons why I should stop. I like to think that my denial of the truth was a way of fulfilling my duty to them as an English language teacher.
From 1995 to 1997, I taught English to undergraduates at Obirin University in Machida, Japan, a city just outside Tokyo. As a full-time teacher in the school's English Language Program (ELP), I usually taught three classes a week, each lasting a total of three hours and consisting of about 30 to 35 students. The ELP, a subdepartment of the university's School of International Studies, is made up of full- and part-time teachers from the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
My two-year experience in Japan began after being accepted for the fellowship provided by the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association. As part of the fellowship, Oberlin graduates have the opportunity to teach English overseas while gaining valuable experience living in and learning about their respective countries and traveling throughout the region.
I spent the majority of my time in Japan teaching, and I gained valuable work experience as a result. The language program at Obirin was intensive and covered reading, writing, speaking, and listening in an integrated, content-based approach. The workload included essay writing, group-project presentations, and in-class speaking exercises and discussions. In addition, Japanese culture was made more accessible to me through my interaction with students, and there is no doubt that the students were a special part of my life in Japan. This avenue I pursued further in private teaching jobs outside the university, which allowed me to teach students of different levels and ages, as well as to make strong connections with the community.
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Teaching was not all, however. There was always something new to see or explore in Japan, especially in and around the Tokyo area, with its towering, closely set buildings, throngs of constantly moving people, variety of shops, restaurants, and department stores, and fascinating mixture of colors and fashion on a seemingly endless concrete landscape. The excellent mass transportation system of trains and buses made exploring easier, albeit tiring when sitting on a train for an hour or more—that is, if one was lucky enough to get a seat!
During my stay I was able to get away from Tokyo to more southern areas like Kyoto, Nara, Uji, Ise, and Mount Hiei. The forests of Mount Hiei and the sleepy, natural surroundings of Uji were just a few of the highlights of this trip, a welcome retreat from the frenetic metropolis.
My travels outside Japan included a trip to Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam. The visit to Vietnam was especially poignant because it is the country in which I was born and which I left when I was two years old.
The end of my two-year term came too soon. Before I left, one of my classes presented me with a wristwatch. At the start of my last semester, my watch had broken. Periodically I would have to ask the students the time (which also facilitated English practice). They gave me the watch so I could stop asking the time, so that I would know the time, and so I would never forget the time I had with them.-- by Viet Thanh Ngo '95
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