Catherine Ann Lombard, M.A.

English Teaching Confessional

Aug 23, 2011

My career as an English language teacher started when I found myself divorced after ten years of marriage at the age of 30. Having just graduated from the University of California in Berkeley, I felt a desperate need to move to a foreign country – anywhere where I could have a fresh start in an unfamiliar environment. It was 1987, before the internet was even imaginable, and so I buried myself in the university’s employment office, searching for letters from international schools that needed native English-speaking teachers.

Unconcerned about my final destination, I applied to more than 100 schools all over the world. People always ask me how I ended up in Japan, and I always say, ‘Japan picked me’. Within six weeks, I had signed a contract to teach in a Japanese juku, or cram school, for one year in the town of Fukuyama, about 400 miles south of Tokyo.

Less than 16 hours after arriving in Japan, I was standing in front of a classroom of 20 straight-backed and attentive nine year olds. After I had introduced myself, they replied, ‘Hello! I’m fine thank you. How are you?’ in a clipped staccato sing-song.

As I had hoped, my US identity immediately began to dissolve. My name was soon twisted into Japanese phonetics and crowned with an honorable title – I was now Kyasarin-sensei. Ironically, sensei (teacher) literally means ‘the one who has come before’. I bore this title gingerly, feeling more like ‘the one who has just arrived’.

My students ranged in age from four to 84, and included a diverse cross-section of Japanese society. In the afternoons I sang ‘London Bridge’ with pre-school children who were trying to pass exams into the best kindergarten. Then in the evening, I would bike to a local bar for my conversation class. Sipping beer, I chatted with a piano tuner, a sculptor, ‘office ladies’ and a World War II veteran who once supplied Japanese troops in Malaysia with food from China. Once a week, I was crammed into a tiny auto and whisked away to the Mitsubishi factory to teach engineers business English. And on Thursday mornings, I smiled and encouraged grandmotherly obaasans who studied English just as my mother might play bridge – for company, stimulation and prestige.

From these diverse groups, I slowly discovered where I was and, within that context, who I was. Examining myself through the prism of the Japanese culture proved to be poignant and humorous at best, startling and confronting at worst. All my students became my guides and teachers, the ‘ones who came before’, and I am forever grateful for their warmth, grace, hospitality and understanding during our brief time together.

Initially, I was surprised at how much Japan felt like America to me. It was strange and yet familiar. People dressed like the folks back home, shopped at department stores, ate at McDonald’s and found themselves stuck in traffic jams. Ever-present TVs blasted nonsense into living rooms, and the moon glistened in the evening sky like a waxed orange.

Despite these reassuring similarities, however, Japan was undeniably different. My first trip to the supermarket left me stunned when I realized I could not read a single package label. And suddenly, at the meager height of 5 foot 2 inches, I became tall and able to reach the highest shelf.

My first cultural challenge as a teacher was to learn how to decipher the subtle body language that marked my students’ incomprehension. But before long, I was able to recognise their look of puzzlement, and instantly knew whenever I was not understood. It always began with a slightly tilted head as they uttered ‘Eto ne…’ (Well, ummmmm ...). The ne was a prolonged neeeeeeey punctuated by the sucking of air through an invisible straw. Then there was a frantic search through dictionaries, as they attempted to coax the right word from its abyss of forgotten vocabulary.

Finally they would shyly mangle a noun. Perhaps if they were brave or practised, a sentence emerged, and their look became one of hope: ‘Will the sensei recognise this strange glob of sound as English?’ I would then smile and nod, repeating the sentence, replacing its words in their proper order, adding a missing article or two. Gratefully, the student would mirror my nod and smile, whispering yes, yes, a hushed ‘hai, hai’. Until it all began again.

One day, Yoshi, an eager seven-year-old boy, belted out a perfect song of ABCs with a finale of ‘Now I know my ABCs. Won’t you, won’t you sink [sic] with me?’. Hayashi-san, an adult student, took great joy in digging inside his book of English-language proverbs for snappy phrases. He would proudly exhume sayings like ‘Butter is mad twice a year’ and ‘It is no sure rule to fish with a crossbow’. All I could do was smile and nod, completely mystified by these archaic maxims.

Along with these unsettling moments were others of startling beauty. When the cherry blossoms started to bloom in early April, I asked my teenage and adult students to write haiku in English. Haiku is an art form that originated in Japan around the 17th century. A haiku poem consists of 17 syllables, usually divided in three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively. It uses nature to reflect human emotions and must suggest one (and only one) season. I relaxed the rules for syllables, but insisted on three lines focusing on spring.

While some students literally translated well-known haiku, others movingly revealed themselves. One student whose family was from Hokkaido, the northernmost island, touched upon my own homesickness clearly and simply with this poem:

My lonely day
remember my hometown
cherry blossoms tonight.

Other students who hid themselves behind shy smiles were suddenly awoken by this exercise which deeply touched their Japanese identity. One 16-year-old girl wrote:

Cherry buds
spring come here.

These students’ poems, which felt so honest, seemed to reach beyond our differences to unite us in our deeper shared humanity.

In the spring sky
misty clouds embrace
the early evening cherry blossoms.

Without doubt, my most demanding students were the engineers and marketing representatives at Mitsubishi Electric Company. Moving from cherry blossoms to circuit breakers continued to challenge my newly-founded expertise. On Monday evenings after working hours, I spent two hours at the factory with a select group of men and women who were highly motivated to improve their English skills.

Learning that I had spent one summer as an intern for a well-known international computer firm, the Director of Education soon asked me to give a speech in English about the differences between American and Japanese computer companies. I was left open-mouthed. Having only arrived six weeks earlier, I felt ignorant about both the subject and audience. But figuring I’d have time before the actual speech to do some research, I agreed to the idea.

Two weeks later, I was sweating profusely in front of nearly 200 blue-jacketed, uniformed employees. As I unwound the carefully-worded presentation, I felt pressure from all sides as a representative of the juku, my university and my country.

Afterwards, there was a 40-minute question and answer period, where I struggled to shape my answers for my audience. But my final answer proved too challenging for all of us. It seemed to be part of my greater struggle to define myself. I was in Japan as an English teacher, but more essentially, I was searching for my authentic self, beyond the definitions imposed by family, society and homeland.

‘What kind of a name is Lombard and who were your ancestors?’ asked one of the employees. The idea that you could be a blend of different genealogies and cultures was difficult to comprehend for the Japanese people, who take great pride in the purity of their race and celebrate their ancestry during Obon, a national holiday in August. But as a direct product of the melding of European immigrates during America’s early 1900s, I had no real answer.

‘There is a ketchup in the United States,’ I replied. ‘It’s called Heinz 57 because it is seasoned with 57 different spices. That’s what I am. You see, I’m part Italian and part Scottish. One great-grandfather comes from the border of France and Germany. We’re not sure what nationality he was. They called my great-grandmother Pennsylvanian Dutch, but she probably wasn’t Dutch at all, but really German. We’re not really sure.’

‘What? Nani?’ The audience stirred restlessly.

‘Ketsup?’ they said. ‘Your ancestors are ketsup?’

Throughout my entire two-year stay in Japan, my identity continued to be gracefully (and at times ruthlessly) mirrored by a culture different from my own. In the end, these reflections offered me a new spectrum of myself, my past, and what I longed to become. Upon saying sayōnara to Japan, I realized that each and every experience had brought me closer to that inner place called home.


This confessional was published in English Teaching Professional, Issue 76, September 2011.