When I went to my three-day training for Gaba, the school where I teach, one of the first things that they talked about was "appropriate behavior and topics." They even presented us with one of those ridiculously clumsy acronyms, I suppose in the hopes of helping us to remember: WARPS+C. I love it when people just tack on an extra letter to an otherwise nice-sounding acronym; it's like making a pun that just almost works. You really want to share it with your friends, so you hope nobody will notice the discrepancy. Why not just make it "CWARPS"? It's a fun way to so say "dead body," yet another presumably taboo topic.
Anyway, WARPS+C stands for War (presumably WWII), Age (don't ask a student how old they are), Religion (although "Japanese religion" is an oxymoron on the scale of "American cheese"), Politics (Obama-McCain is a popular topic in my lessons these days), Sex (only say it with your eyes), and Culture (as in, "Wow, your culture sure is messed up!").
All of these topics, and so many more that the Gaba brass couldn't incorporate into a cute acronym, have been main talking points during my lessons. I spend a lot of my time at work enduring ridiculously dull conversations with people who can barely speak my language. Why not spice things up a bit? I jump at the slightest hint that Yoko wants to tell me about her current French boyfriend, and how he differs from her previous French boyfriend. I savor every moment that Tomoyuki wants to spend recounting his debaucherous night out. I'm so sick of hearing the mundane details of businessmen's jobs that I crave the cretinous and seek the scandalous whenever possible.
The other day, I had a conversation that even I felt was bordering on inappropriate. I reached some point where I was pretty sure somebody's feelings were going to get hurt. Here is a rough transcript of the exchange:
New student, Akihiro, and I are chatting in my booth (a euphemism for "half-sized cubicle"). After five or ten minutes of warm-up banter, I ask the usual question: "So do you want to continue our conversation or go to the book?" He opted for conversation. I knew I was halfway to something interesting. We had been talking about his trip to New York, so I continued:
Alex: So did you go out at night at all in New York?
Akihiro: Haha, no. New York very dangerous.
Al: Heh, yeah I understand. It must be strange for a person from Tokyo to go to New York. Tokyo is so safe!
Ak: Yes, Japan is very safe country. One of most safe countries in the world.
Al: I've noticed that, actually. I've never felt scared walking around Tokyo at night.
Ak: No, no reason to be scared. There is no crime.
Al: Well, there must be some crime...
Ak: Yes, of course there is crime, but no much at all.
Al: Yeah. Why do you think that is? Why is Japan so safe compared to other places?
Ak: Hmm... [long pause. he considers this for a while] I think it must be because Japan is a small country surrounded by ocean, so it's very hard for criminals to come in.
Al: Haha! [I stop laughing when I see he's serious] Ok, maybe no foreign criminals can come in, but what about Japanese criminals?
Ak: [seems very confused] Japanese criminals?
Al: Yes, like a Japanese person? What if a Japanese person came up to you with a knife and said, "Give me all your money"?
Ak: HAHAHAHAHAHA! [he laughs and laughs] No, that would never happen.
Al: Really? Why not? [I've been so bored all day, I'm really milking this for all it's got]
Ak: [he thinks this over for a long while] I think Japanese people very peaceful.
Al: Ok, that's fair enough. But what about really poor people, or homeless people? Don't you think they might get desperate and try to steal?
Ak: No, homeless people are very weak. They cannot do anything.
Al: I see...
Ak: Yes, Japanese people very peaceful. They don't want conflict.
Al: Ok, but why do you think Japanese people are especially peaceful? Like, more than any other country?
Ak: [pensive for a long while] I think is maybe because atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Only country in the world to have atomic bomb dropped on it. Maybe we want peace now.
Al: [I got really embarrassed at this point, and realized maybe he brought this up to shut me up. I ended with something stupid like] Maybe we should all have an atomic bomb dropped on us, then we would all be peaceful.
[uncomfortable laughter on both sides]
Ak: Sometimes, Japanese high school boys go to Yoyogi park and kill homeless people.
Al: They kill them?
Ak: Yes, maybe set them on fire. They cannot defend themselves.
So there you have it: the most uncomfortable conversation I've had yet at Gaba. I say "yet" because I know there is much, much more to come.