By Jason Gray
When teaching conversational English, at least in Japan, fascinating students are a rarity. This isn’t necessarily because there aren’t interesting people who want to learn English, but perhaps because they don’t reveal themselves as such (it should be noted that most English teachers don’t come across as fascinating either). It could be due to the obvious barriers of language and culture, or the context and limited time frame in which teacher and student meet. Occasionally the trend is bucked.
My new student was late. I’d been told he was usually out “drinking and entertaining people into the wee hours” on Friday nights, often making his Saturday afternoon lessons a difficult proposition. On his profile sheet was listed “Hobbies: golfing, gambling (Vegas),” and the fact that he owned several nightclubs in Roppongi–Tokyo’s biggest and most famous nightlife district. He was also the father of three children. He’d canceled on me before, so I was doubly interested to meet him. We’ll call him Mr. Gosha.
About twenty minutes after the lesson was scheduled to begin he arrived in the reception area in search of his designated classroom. He was neither short nor tall, in his mid-40s, cropped black hair in a Caesar cut, wore a black button-down shirt and grey slacks, with sunglasses tinted a faint purple and evenly tanned skin. The way he carried himself was noticeably different than the hundreds of salarymen and government employees that filed in and out every day. The immediate feeling I got was that he was of a world apart from long, sweaty train commutes, cheap white work shirts, bad convenience store food and sterile relationships. Mr. Gosha shook my hand and said hello, emitting an unusually low, resonant voice from a throat that seemed like it had been marinated for many years in only the finest liquor.
I attempted to break the ice by telling him I worked in the film business and taught on the side, but he didn’t seem impressed. I asked if he was learning English for his nightclub work.
“No. My broken English is good enough for my business,” he said in confident and smooth language. Having met many hundreds of students over the years, not one had ever spoke about their own English ability this way.
“So why are you studying English?” I probed.
“My wife is from Canada. Vancouver.”
“Your three kids…”
“No, no, different mother,” he laughed. “We speak English at home. But she can speak Japanese and can write some difficult kanji!”
After more small talk we started into the lesson, focusing on grammatical structures. In most cases, an English teacher soldiers through the hour-or-so as best they can, one notch closer to dinner, a movie, or their significant other–like most people working a job they have little personal interest in. I could tell right off that this “student” had led an interesting life and had stories to tell, so I deftly detoured out of teaching and into simply talking.
He gave me the rundown on his establishments, which ranged from casual joints where men can go and drink with pretty university girls hired to guzzle with patrons, up to high-end private clubs with state-of-the-art interiors.