Home > Gaijin Smash > Penpals


I did a penpal exchange project with the School of Peace. While my website’s budding popularity was somewhat new, I got an offer for an exchange with American students, and it seemed interesting enough. I picked the School of Peace as the school that would have the best chance of actually making it work. (Possible Ghetto School letter: “Hi. I like sex. Do you play sex? I like hip-hop. How many guns do you have?”) Still, the head English teacher and I had some reservations about the project. Would the students be motivated enough to want to understand the letters, and write/send one of their own? A package of letters from American students came, and despite our anxieties, we distributed them to the ninensei.

I went through the letters beforehand, and separated them according to sex, as well as difficulty. We tried to match up students to an appropriate letter, both figuring it would be best to match students up with kids of the same gender, and letters appropriate to their English ability. I explained to the class what we would be doing for the next two days, and much as usual they listened without showing much in the way of outward emotion. We are Borg. Resistance is futile.

As the students received their letters, the atmosphere was still kind of quiet, and I wondered if they had taken any interest in the project. A few minutes in, the English teacher realized that maybe English-Japanese dictionaries would be a good idea. She left the class and came back a minute later with a basket full of dictionaries.

What happened next, I can only describe as a pack of hungry, ferocious tigers ravaging a freshly killed deer carcass.

The students leapt out of their desks, and within seconds, had dash-teleported to the front of the classroom, snatched the dictionaries, and bounded back to their seats and their letters. The poor English teacher, she’d gotten to the front of the class, said “Hey everyone, I’ve got dict-” and then simply disappeared in a sea of Japanese schoolkids. I’ve seen less clamor over the newest Harry Potter book. When the hyenas backed off, she was left standing there holding an empty basket and looking utterly disheveled. The look on her face ranks in the Top 3 of the Greatest WTF!? Expressions* of all time. (For the record, #2 is Elian Gonzalez staring down the barrel of an American semi-automatic rifle. #1 is Ms. Americanized face as Ms. Forehead told her about Michael Jackson Juice.)

So yeah, Mikey I think they like it.

Now, I communicated to my contact in America that these kids have been learning English for only a year, so letters should be written in the most basic forms possible. The teacher in America told the kids the same. But, they didn’t quite seem to get it. Kids wrote about having acres of farmland and their religious beliefs and all sorts of complicated stuff that left the poor Japanese kids scratching their heads utterly confounded.

What really threw them off was typos, though. They had no way of knowing that a misspelled word was a misspelled word. I saw one girl fretting over her dictionary for ten minutes and went to see what the problem was. She pointed a word out to me, and said she couldn’t find it in the dictionary. I leaned over and saw her point to “sate.” I told her that the student had made a typo on the word “state.” She didn’t verbalize her reaction, but if she had, it would have gone something like “…FUCK!” Well, in Japanese of course, but afterwards, she kind of laughed about it. “Well, it’s frustrating, but it’s kind of nice to know that Americans make mistakes with English too.”

She has NO idea.

Another student waved me over, and asked me to translate a sentence for him. His penpal had been talking about music. The sentence that was throwing him off was “I like metal.” I explained that metal was a type of music, like heavy rock. Instantly, a look of complete and total relief spread across his face, as if he’d just downed an entire crate of Rolaids. You know how if you’ve been needing to go to the bathroom but there are no toilets around, like you’re on a road trip or something? One hour passes… two hours pass… three… and all you can think about is emptying your bladder post-haste? When the moment comes, when you finally do get to piss, Oh My God the sweet, sweet relief? That top-of-the-world feeling that is only rivaled by sex, and watching new episodes of 24 on FOX? Yes, that look of relief.

“Oh! Oh thank goodness! Whoa, thank goodness!” He exclaims. I asked what the concern was. You see, Japanese people aren’t familiar with the metal genre, and probably never having seen the word before, this boy had simply looked it up in his dictionary. “Oh, I thought he meant metal, as in iron and steel,” he explained, “I thought I’d gotten a letter from some weirdo who was like ‘Hi, my name is so-and-so. I like to play with metal’.”

I thought it best not to explain what kind of music metal was.

It also seems as if the English teacher and I were wrong on one point at least – the gender. Despite our efforts, some boys ended up with letters from girl students and vice versa. One boy called me over for a question. “This name… how do you read it? And is this a boy or a girl?” The name was kind of ambiguous (damn you upper middle class white America. Stop naming your kids after fruits, mountain ranges, seasons, Toyota sudans, and whatever “trendy” thing you come up with). I told him it was probably a girl. The boy slowly stood up (I swear, almost in slow-motion), pumped both fists into the air, and triumphantly exclaimed “….YES! I got A GIRL!” The other male students sort of bowed to him in a jealous reverence.

These are the same boys who, if for some reason paired to work with girls in a class activity, will retch and contort uncontrollably until spasms occur, ensuring a trip to the school nurse. But having received a letter from an American female, this boy suddenly became Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic. Y’know, before it sinks. Astonishing.

Another boy called me over with the same question. Again, I tell him it was a girl. This girl had handwritten her letter, but her writing was really sloppy, so I guess the teacher had made her type up a draft on the computer. The original, handwritten letter was stapled to the computer draft.

Boy: This name…is this a girl or a boy?
Me: It’s probably a girl.
Boy: (flips to the handwritten copy) So then, you mean a girl wrote this?
Me: Well, yeah.
Boy: So, this is a girl’s handwriting.
Me: Well, it’s her handwriting…
Boy: (puts both hands on the paper) Wow. A girl wrote this…
Me: You know, the type-written version is probably a lot easier to read.
Boy: (looks up at me, still caressing the handwritten letter) I think I’m gonna stick with this one, thanks.

Whatever he did with the letter after class…I just don’t wanna know.

There was one letter that really threw everyone for a loop, including the teacher. The American student was talking about his favorite holidays, and he wrote something to the extent of, “My favorite holidays are Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, which is the resurrection of Jesus.”

I’m sure most if not all of you reading have had some experience studying at least a second language. Now, try to think about how to say “resurrection of Jesus” in your non-native tongue. Kinda hard, isn’t it? Now imagine a Japanese schoolboy trying to make sense of this sentence, when just a few weeks ago he was working on “I have many comic books.” And THEN factor in that Japan isn’t really a Christian society, and there’s no reason why they’d even know who Jesus is.


Even the teacher was baffled by this, so they called me over to help. “Well, resurrection is when someone who’s died comes back to life.” I explained to the student. He nods in understanding. “Okay,” he says, “now, who’s this Jesus character?” Christmas in Japan is all about the man in the big red suit. “Well, Jesus was a man…” I started to say, but before I could even finish my sentence, the boy looked up and me and said, “Oh! So, Jesus was a zombie then?”


Puts an entirely different spin on the Good Book, don’t it? But if Hollywood ever makes a movie about Jesus the Zombie (No. Please God, no. By the love of Erik Estrada, no.), I demand royalties.

Categories: Gaijin Smash
  1. September 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    It would probably have been better to explain it as Jesus being a God. I mean, there’s lots of gods in Japan, right?

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