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Mutual Misunderstanding by Laura Popp

Mutual Misunderstanding 

by Laura Popp


Cultural misunderstandings are usually, I’ve discovered, mutual. Take the common Western observation that Japanese people look younger than they really are. It wasn’t until I lived in Japan that I realized they, too, found boring white folk like me ageless enigmas.

Thursday morning, 7:30, Yamamoto-sensei greeted me at my apartment. I grabbed my backpack and bounded out the door. I was really excited about my first day as a teacher, clad in my black skirt suit and armed with my bento (lunch box).

Yamamoto-sensei giggled (a perfectly acceptable thing for a professional thirty-five- year-old Japanese woman to do, apparently). “You look like a student.”

I’m sure she meant that I looked cute, which is the ultimate Japanese compliment for a girl. But as an insecure twenty-three-year-old who just spent the last twenty of those years in school and was finally starting her “career,” I felt devastated. Will the kids respect me? Will the other teachers even like me?

I tried not to sound defensive. “Um…thanks.”

Yamamoto-sensei beamed and led me down the sidewalk. We passed quaint little shops and smiling toothless grannies in 50’s-style aprons sweeping the sidewalk with short, branchy brooms that seemed right out of a fairytale.

“How cute!” they greeted me in Japanese as I passed. “Are you an international student?”

Sensei,” (teacher) Yamamoto-sensei defended me.

It’s all right, I told myself. Little old ladies in America would say the same thing.

Half an hour later we reached Kikiyogaoka High School. Before meeting the other teachers, Yamamoto-sensei rushed me into the principal’s office where we had tea. Japan Laura Popp

“Ah, look like student!”the principal exclaimed.

Eh…arigato.” (Um…thanks.) He’s just trying to be nice.

Next, Yamamoto-sensei introduced me to the other English teachers in the sensei room, of which about five out of the eight actually spoke English. (The rest taught grammar.) 

“My goodness, you look like a student,” one of the older male teachers noted.

“Um…thanks.” They’ll get used to me.

Finally, Yamamoto-sensei guided me around the three squat buildings where I was to spend my days teaching first year (10th grade) high school. Eventually, we ran into some of the kids I would soon be instructing.

Yata!” one of the girls exclaimed when she saw me. (Which is roughly translated “excited squeal universal to all teenage females.”) “A new international student!”

I wanted to burst into tears. Instead, I crawled back to the sensei room and sat at my desk, pretending to organize it when actually all I could think was, What if they won’t listen to me? What if they always treat me like a child? What if—

“Excuse me,” I heard a small voice with a thick Japanese accent beside my desk. “Could you help me?”

I glanced up at a short young man with glasses.

He awkwardly stuck out his hand. “My name is Kenji. I want learn English. You teach me after school?”  Laura Popp Teaching Japan

“Sure, Kenji,” I said, giving his hand a firm shake. Finally, some respect! “What grade are you going into?”

Kenji cocked his head to one side. “Pardon?”

“What year will you be in school?”

Kenji’s face flushed red. “I math teacher!” 

Cultural misunderstandings: usually mutual.

Laura Popp is a part-time writer, full-time tourist (oops, I mean English instructor) who finances her two great passions by teaching abroad. She has taught/volunteered in the U.S., Japan, India, Mexico, and Malawi Africa, also visiting Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Ethiopia, Scotland, Korea, and China. You can follow her travels on Her fantasy novel, Treasure Traitor, partially based on her adventures, will be released 10th November 2012.