I tried to sit in the folding chair in a relaxed way. I’m not nervous. When my JTE, M-sensei, had asked if I was, I had admitted to being a little nervous. He had casually answered, “Well, there will be 1,000 people in the gym.” I laughed. “No pressure,” I answered.
I heard the principal, who was doing the introduction, say “Himani-sensei” and knew my time had come. A moment later, we bowed to each other and I walked toward the microphone. In my head, a litany continued without pause: Remember to stand up straight. No wide steps, you’re wearing a skirt! Don’t trip in these slippers! Talk slowly! Remember, no bitchy resting face — smile! SMILE! But not too much, you don’t want to have crazy eyes!
I suppose I should back up a bit. I’m walking across the stage during Opening Ceremonies; today is the first day of school. One thing I’ve noticed in Japan: they’re big on tradition and ceremonies.
I can’t help but compare my experiences with a little amusement. In America, at CGUHS, our opening “ceremony” was during a teacher’s meeting. All the new teachers would stand, then quite quickly they’d go around and introduce themselves. One’s introduction was something like: “Hi, I’m so-and-so, I’m teaching [grade level] English. Before this I was at… Looking forward to working with you.” Students met you in class — and if they didn’t have your class, there was no reason to know you.
Here’s my speech for the ceremony:
Hello, my name is _____. I am the new ALT from Arizona, America. In Arizona, I taught English in high school for four years. While I have only been in Japan for one month, I have already enjoyed my time here. Japan is a beautiful and friendly country. I hope to continue to enjoy my time here, as well as learn the language. I look forward to working at [HS]. I hope to make learning English fun and interesting! So, let us all enjoy English together! Thank you.
At first, I had mistakenly crafted a three sentence speech, because I was told it “didn’t need to be long” and I used America standards for that. When I arrived at work and the JTEs looked at it, they incredulously said, “That’s very short.” Even with my additions, I felt my speech was probably short, but there was nothing else that needed to be said. I know, a very American view.
In Japan, Opening Ceremonies are in front of the whole school. Ours was about half an hour, consisting of everyone singing the Japanese National Anthem, my speech, some announcements, and lots of bowing. I had brought a blazer to wear, and then realized I would be overdressed* so I took it off. Of course, I forgot my indoor shoes. My school is unique in the fact that the only place one needs to wear indoor shoes is in the gym, and this is the 2nd time I’ve needed to be in the gym. As a result, I had to wear public slippers kept for those who don’t bring their indoor shoes. Note to self, get some slippers at the store or something.
I watched the students. Again, I didn’t see any headphones or cellphones. But, there were tiny pockets of students here and there that talked to one another, ignoring the announcements; however they kept their volume to a minimum and not once was it difficult to hear the speakers. I also noticed a few students — mostly boys — sleeping. I’m guessing they were part of a sport club, like baseball, which practice every day. I’m amazed at some people’s ability to sleep in the most uncomfortable positions. Since coming to Japan, I’ve watched people sleep standing up on trains or crouched on platforms. Here, the sleepers still had their legs drawn up and clutched as they sat with their eyes closed and heads slightly bowed. I’d’ve probably fallen over, starfishing on the gym floor. Not that I had the option; the teachers stood for the Opening Ceremonies.
Anyway, back to the stage.
I lightly rested my hands on the podium, thankful it was there, and remembered to smile as I slowly said my speech. One thing that takes some getting used to when speaking to non-native speakers: talking slowly but not too slowly (you don’t want to sound boring and monotone).
“Hello,” I said, and to my surprise and delight, the high schoolers obligingly said, “Hello” back.
Slowly, carefully, keeping the smile plastered on my face, I said my speech. At the end, I bowed and they clapped. I walked off, wondering if I was walking too quickly. Was I supposed to bow some more? But I didn’t want to leave during an awkward silence once the clapping had ended. Just go, I told myself.
I have a tendency to go into automatic when nervous. I know what I need to do…and I just do it. Don’t overthink it. Afterwards, I come back to myself and hope I did it alright.
As I went back to my place, no one looked at me. Another cultural difference? I’m sure that in America, if I was a newbie, one of the mentor teachers would have caught my eye and flashed me a reassuring thumbs up or grin. Finally, unable to take the suspense, I leaned over to my JTE and whispered, “Did I do OK?”
“Hm? Oh yes,” he replied.
“Oh, good,” I said, and spent the rest of the ceremony in silence.
* Summer in Japan is the season of “cool biz,” which essentially is the same as business casual. Although, I’ve noticed women still wear panty hose with skirts, something I’ve decided to forego (I’ll play the [su_tooltip style=”red” position=”north” shadow=”yes” rounded=”yes” content=”means ‘foreigner’ (literally ‘outside person’)”]gaijin[/su_tooltip] card if I have to) because I don’t understand how anyone can stand them in 80% humidity.