Honey and Vinegar by Rachel Davidson
As I reflect on the last few months of teaching English in Japan, I find my memories each leave a distinct aftertaste.
Take late September, for example: as summer humidity recedes, I wear glasses to school instead of contacts. One of the grade 5s in the special education class tells me the glasses suit me, and gives me an ear-to-ear smile. I grin right back. During recess, we walk to the library holding hands, and my heart is as warm and gooey as apple pie.
Then for Halloween, I wear a cat costume from a popular video game, and the kids surround me in droves. They shout “Kawaii!!”, squeeze my two tails, and the littlest ones even try to unbutton the front of the onesie. I can’t get mad at their adorable curiosity, though; I can only giggle as the memories are sprinkled with sugar.
One November class period is more astringent. While I am presenting photos from a recent trip abroad in an attempt to increase international understanding, there is an undercurrent of chatter among the grade 3s. The support teacher does not hush them, and the volume increases. So I find myself raising my voice in Japanese: “Wait a second. Can you please do me a favor and be quiet? If you can’t, I really will stop.”
The response from one student: “Go ahead.”
My body shakes with anger. The support teacher escorts that boy out of the classroom for a talking-to. But even though I quickly plaster on a smile and refocus my energy, and even though the remaining kids cooperate and enjoy class, that day becomes bitter, burnt around the edges.
After that, my senses are dulled. The drop of syrup left by one grade 6 student who always says “Hello!” and chats with me before class is overwhelmed by the blandness of the other 39, who sit like lumps of dough, barely opening their mouths to repeat after me. I hear rumors of the issues at home that impel these children to apathy or defiance. For the first time, I go to school with the expectation of being left bitter.
It is only on December 24, the day before winter break, that I regain a taste for sweetness. I have lunch with a rambunctious grade 3 class, one in which I’ve had to be more stern than kind to keep their attention. Despite that, one of the girls sitting behind me turns around in her chair and talks to me throughout the meal. She asks for extra coloring sheets like the ones we’d used in class the other day. From my tote bag, I fish out 10 small, paper squares. She then insists that I write her a New Year’s postcard, and slips me her address, scrawled in rudimentary hiragana letters. If I can flatter myself that her blunt demands are driven by affection, they are oddly refreshing.
The next day, I send the postcard. The nice lady at the post office tells me I can attach a lottery ticket for an extra 10 yen, and I think of how amazing it would be if something came of that. It’s a spark of unexpected delight, and I am inspired to fight off all the blandness, bitterness, and acidity that I can.
I realize that sweetness needs a counterbalance to elicit the most well-rounded taste. But from now on, I simply want to drench my students in honeyed love, and hope they do the same for me.