Wednesday, 15 June 2016 12:03

It’s by teaching that we learn most

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Arigato. The Japanese use this word to say thank you. It was one of the words my students showed me a few summers ago. Along with some limited vocabulary in their language, my class also taught me about their culture.

 

As is often the case, it’s when we’re teaching that we learn the most.
My task was to prepare a group of 15 to 17-year-olds who were going to complete a year of high school in our country. For the month of August, we worked on getting their English up to par for life in Canada.
Out of personal interest, I was curious why Asian students excel academically and I wanted to know if they’re naturally smarter than us. My students gave me the answer.
A cheerful and outgoing girl named Mao drew a pie chart that showed how the average Japanese high school student spends his or her day. I am still shocked by what I saw.
    The largest section was from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., which is when they’re in school. After school, they spend an hour doing extra-curricular activities like basketball, jazz band or debate, but I’ve never met a Canadian student who is in an origami club or who dedicates years to perfecting their ability to perform a traditional tea ceremony.
When the extra-curricular programs finish, some students return home for supper, but many do not. Instead, they go to juku, which translates to cram school.
A juku is an academy where students go to improve their grades, usually in math, science or English. Most students arrive at 7 p.m. and class ends at 9. From there, they will often take a bus, then a train, then probably another bus before they arrive home around 10 p.m. only to be required to do several hours of homework.
On average, students go to bed around midnight or 1 a.m. Awake by 7, they continue this cycle six days a week for three years.
That being said, they don’t rebel against Japan’s rigid schedule. Students accept it. They’re in tune with the Serenity Prayer. 
Studying is a duty the Japanese take seriously. I think that’s why many Asians have a competitive edge over us – they value learning and they out-work us. I doubt they’re born smarter, but they develop themselves more.
At first, I found Japanese people polite, but distant, reserved and difficult to read. Two incidents helped change my perspective.
The first was when Nodoka started to cry while telling me she’d flooded the toilet in her host family’s house. Soon, her glasses fogged over and concealed her red, tear-soaked eyes. Nodoka cried so hard she struggled to breathe. I thought there’d be some stained linoleum, but probably nothing more. Then she showed me pictures.
Starting from the main level, the toilet water had flowed under the baseboards and pooled in the basement, but only after soaking a section of the downstairs insulation and drywall. Damage was estimated at $4,500. Luckily, she had insurance.
Most of my students told me to shave my beard, not just once, but weekly.
 I always answered that my beard is beautiful. Not wanting to agree with or offend their teacher, the students answered with awkward silence.
On the last day, Kaori, a bright and upbeat girl with a look in her eyes that never let on she could be sassy, gave me a card that read, “I really enjoyed the class everyday. I wanted to study in class more!!! Thank you soooo much. Lastly, you should cut your beard!!! If you look like Santa Claus, please give me a Christmas present!”
I still laugh out loud when I read that card, arigato Kaori.

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Dominique Liboiron

Dominique Liboiron is a speaker, author, teacher, journalist and photographer. To raise awareness about heart disease and to honour the life of one of its victims, Liboiron canoed from Saskatchewan to New Orleans. He is the first person to undertake that journey. He enjoys outdoor sports such as camping, hunting, fly fishing and canoeing.