Learning Japanese 

One man's year in the trenches of Japanese education.

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Fear the Lipton Peach Tea Gang. The band of surly 13-year-old girls decked out in short skirts and hoodies embossed with the Playboy bunny logo are a force of nature. The bottles of tea they carry are actually sticky grenades, hurled at the least provocation. They have no respect for authority and they are the perfect spiritual center for Bob Gaulke's Embrace Your Insignificance.

For two and a half years Gaulke worked with a revolving cast of bored, disenfranchised, and overworked Japanese adolescents, trying (mostly in vain) to teach them basic English. He was punched in the testicles more than once for his efforts. Using short, sushi-sized passages, Embrace Your Insignificance deftly chronicles those nut punches and the smiling children who administered them.

Though Gaulke is ostensibly the hero of the book—many passages chronicle his lust for colleagues, frustrations with communication, and the foibles of culture shock—it's the children that make the book so charming. This is less a travelogue than a sociological study of Japanese primary education and the kids that endure it.

Gaulke is fascinated with the student population known as "Yankees" (as in, "Yankee go home"), who are doomed to unskilled labor by the age of 16. Unlike America, education is not mandatory in Japan, and many children simply hang around the school to be close to friends. Gaulke renders their lives with a careful outsider's eye in passages that are funny, sometimes beautiful, and often moving.

But Embrace Your Insignificance is fascinating beyond its preoccupation with Japanese youth culture. Gaulke also drifts through subjects as diverse as food, weather, Japanese social standards, and isolation, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes Gaulke's short entries feel stilted and repetitive, as if he's trying too hard to be the deep artistic wanderer. He's at his best in unadorned prose, as in one passage called "Badminton Lake" in which he expounds on the graceful dance of a girls' badminton class as they drill in a grungy gymnasium.

In the end, his account of Yokohama reads the way I imagine teaching English there for two years must have felt: sometimes exhilarating, sometimes funny, and sometimes beautiful. Even despite a small amount of monotony and frustration, it's worth the trip.

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