Updated: Jul 25, 2019
Here's a piece I wrote back in 2010, while teaching English to international students in New York City. Based on true events, with names changed and some minor embellishment.
“Will you read my diary?” he asks me. “It help me write English better, and you can tell me what is more natural way of saying things like this.” My Japanese student Yoshi presents me with his daily journal for revision and explanation every day after class during my lunch break. I teach English to immigrant students in New York City, and so it is my job to help Yoshi find more natural ways of saying things. And so I do my best to naturalize his sentences for him, even though I should be eating my lunch.
“How can I say this situation where I am paying too much for broken computer?” Yoshi asks.
“…Okay, I see. So you bought an expensive computer that doesn’t work?” I ask for clarification.
“Yes. Shit computer.” Yoshi clarifies. He enjoys the word 'shit,' and he often uses it at the wrong time for the wrong purpose, but this time he used it correctly, and it makes me happy.
“I see. You have a shit computer, and you paid too much for it. Okay, well we would probably say something like: ‘I was ripped off, or I need to return the computer to…”
“Ripped out?” Yoshi asks.
“No, ripped off. It means you bought something that wasn’t good.”
“Ah…RIPPED OFF.” He enunciates clearly and loudly while smiling and entering these words into his computer dictionary. He nods and strokes his chin. “Ah…so, I can say I bought RIPPED OFF computer?” He looks at me with excitement.
“No, no, you would say that you were ripped off, or you got ripped off. It’s the passive voice, because it happened to you. Do you understand?”
Yoshi nods and grins broadly, but he doesn’t understand, as he vividly demonstrates in his next sentence: “Yesterday was day where I bought ripped out shit, and today I have money no more.”
“No, no, no, ripped off, it’s ripped OFF, and the rest of your sentence isn’t natural enough.”
“I buy RIPPED OFF shit!” Yoshi declares proudly.
“Let’s move on, shall we?” I suggest. There are five more pages of his journal left to naturalize and I’m hungry. Every day, it’s like this with Yoshi and his journal. Byzantine syntax, obscure idioms, grammatical chaos and all sorts of life problems: “Dear Diary, it’s Yoshi. Today was very bad. First, I buy ripped out computer. Next, I pissed out my English teacher with diary that was not natural in meaning. English grammar very different from Japanese and think teacher very mad as a result of this diary page. Maybe think teacher wants to throw diary into wall but won’t because teacher very kindly and never gets pissed out at me even when I don’t figure off the answer clearly.”
There are some students who I can help, and then there are others like Yoshi. Emergency room doctors deal with this every day; they triage the patients as they come in, and focus on the ones that have a fighting chance. The ones who don’t, well they probably just let them die. But I can’t do that with Yoshi. I wish I could. I would read his diary entry and then I would set down my red pen, and somberly declare: “I’m sorry Yoshi, but there’s nothing more we can do for your journal. Time of death, 12:32 pm. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my lunch time.” I can’t do that because Yoshi tries harder than any other student in my class. He doesn’t have to write a diary, and God knows I never asked him to, but he takes it upon himself to put in the extra effort because he really wants to learn English. But it doesn’t come easy to him, and he’s having a hard time in New York, and he works all night in a restaurant for very little pay, and he wants to be a professional funk guitarist, and life is generally hard for Yoshi. I know because I read his diary every day, and the two most common phrases are “very bad day” and “is shit.” I know for a fact that he’s bought a bunch of ripped off things in New York, and his experience with the broken computer is pretty much par for the course in the life of Yoshi. You almost have to admire the consistency of his misfortune; every day he somehow manages to stumble into something that is shit: “today I buy new ripped out phone which breaks now and is shit,” or he gets locked out of his apartment: “now I was locked away from my apartment for many parts of the day because key is shit,” or he gets rained on: “today the terrible rains became serious problem for me because umbrella is shit and is breaking down,” or he falls asleep on the subway and misses his stop: “very bad day today because sleeping on train during stop when it does and not waking up was terrible thing for me.” It’s always Yoshi against the world and its shit.
Yoshi’s misfortune is cast in even starker terms by virtue of the impeccable luck of his classmate and fellow diarist Byung-jun Kim, from South Korea. Byung-jun Kim also writes a daily journal, and often asks me to review his journal after class just before I read Yoshi’s entry. I don’t mind because it only takes two minutes to review Byung-jun Kim’s perfect journal with its glowing attitude and flawless syntax. Byung-jun Kim prefers to go by his American name “Bobby,” and he seems remarkably well adapted to his new life in the U.S. He belongs to a Korean-American church, and he prays every day, and he has many friends, and his English is almost flawless. He works very hard, and he never uses the word 'shit' to describe his life. Even his handwriting is neat. I love reading his journal, because it’s easy to understand and it’s just glowing with good energy. “Thank you Bobby, there is absolutely nothing wrong with your journal today, and I loved the way you incorporated the passive causative from yesterday’s class in describing your birthday celebration with your thirty five beautiful closest friends from church in that wonderful French bistro on the Upper West Side. Thank you. Once again, you’ve brought sunshine and happiness into my life with your beautiful prose.” And then Bobby smiles, politely nods, and then neatly packs up his bag while Yoshi pulls up a chair for another session of misery, revision, and confused misfortune. I can feel the mood in the room shift from the crisply optimistic English of Bobby to the existentially pessimistic and grammatically shattered haikus of Yoshi and his terrible shit days. Bobby bows goodbye and then I’m stuck alone in the room with Yoshi and his nihilism and messy penmanship.
This was supposed to be my lunch hour, my alone time, my time to regroup, but it’s not. I want to help Yoshi, and I appreciate his effort, but I’m hungry and I want to be left alone before my next class arrives with their impossible questions and uniquely weird sentence structures. I could tell Yoshi to leave, as I’ve done in the past. I could stand up for my personal time and say: “Out with you and your broken English! I don’t want to read your diary today! I never told you to write a diary! I never wanted this, I never asked for this, and I never assigned this, so leave now and let me eat my lunch in peace, Man! Go!” I have done this, not in so many words, but I have put my foot down and Yoshi always understands. But in my class of eighteen students, Yoshi is the one who tries the hardest. Yoshi is the one who cares the most. And so I feel a certain obligation to meet him halfway. But my stomach is growling. The result is often a passive aggressive compromise on my part where I review his daily pages as quickly as possible, cutting a few corners here and there. By the time you’ve read five pages of “this day was terrible for now because is trying for me to buy new computer which is ripped out…” you lower your standards a bit, for self preservation. There’s only so much you can give in one day, and you have to focus on the sentences you can help, and let the other ones die.
“Can I say: I bought new computer from selling man at Apple store because old computer broken quickly and seriously?”
“Yes, that’s fine. People will know what you mean. Let’s move on to the next page.”
“What does it mean this situation where Americans say: ‘bless you'?” Yoshi asks.
“Oh, that’s just what we say when someone sneezes; you know, 'Ahh-Chew!' And then someone says: ‘bless you’ in response.” I pretend to sneeze.
“Ahh…so when Americans have sick noses they are blessing for each other directly?” Yoshi looks at me again with his wide eyes.
“Yes, we bless the nose. It’s just a custom we have. Let’s move on to the next page.”
And we cover a lot more ground this way, and sometimes we finish early enough so that I have thirty minutes alone to eat my lunch. If I’m too thorough, too precise, I don’t eat lunch. I made this mistake once early on in the semester when Yoshi asked me to explain some new slang he had learned while watching the movie Jerry Maguire.
“Why do Americans say: ‘you are the shit’ for compliment in here? In Japan, when I told someone is shit like this it means very bad thing to be.”
“Okay, well of course shit is a bad thing in the United States too, but this is an idiom, like slang, and it’s very important to include the definite article ‘the,’ otherwise it’s very bad.” I enunciate very clearly and slowly as I explain in my serious teacher tone: “You are The Shit – very good. You are shit – very bad. Do you understand Yoshi?”
“Yes, I understand this situation. I can say you are the shit teacher is meaning you are very good teacher.” Yoshi bows in respect.
“No, no, it’s not like that. We don’t use nouns after the word shit: just ‘the shit.’” And we went on like this for over twenty minutes, talking about the shit while my lunch break passed me by. I noticed some strange glances from the other teachers as they walked by my classroom, the door wide open as they caught sentence fragments like: “…once again, shit is bad. The shit is good! Do you understand me? The shit is good.”
Over the course of the semester, the other committed diarist Byung-jun Kim (Bobby) would sometimes linger after class while I explained various idiomatic profanities to Yoshi. Eventually, Bobby and Yoshi became good friends, which I was glad to see, for Yoshi’s sake. I hoped that perhaps Bobby’s English skills and general positivity would rub off on Yoshi. Every day after class, Yoshi and Bobby would now go to Best Buy or the Apple store together and look at digital cameras or laptop computers as a team. Despite their advancing English skills, they were still both strangers in a strange land, and together they could protect each other from preying selling men who would give them ripped off products. And from my perspective, it made for more interesting journal reading as I got a dual perspective on their shared experiences. Bobby’s optimism provided a much needed counterbalance to Yoshi’s desolate attempts to avoid being ripped off throughout New York City. I don’t know that it made Yoshi any more optimistic, but at least I got a more balanced perspective on life in New York for newly arrived foreign students.
Yoshi’s journal: “today my friend and I myself went into Apple to investigate laptop computer possibilities for sales but really it is still too expensive for buying so I am investigating credit card possibilities but I think now that credit card is shit.”
Bobby’s journal: “Yoshi and I went to Apple today and we witnessed some beautiful computers which perhaps I will buy someday. Then we had coffee and I went to church to pray and I met Korean American guy who speaks very good English and will help me to learn more about it. We prayed together and he became my friend now and my day is very good.”
Yoshi’s journal: “Last night I fell asleep on subway train again because I’m being very tired that night with restaurant having been staying opened ‘til three o’clock A.M. because American guys came in for Sushi at midnight and then I had big argument with other cook and that was very terrible. VERY TIRED!!! And now I observate my very bad luck are decreasing more.”
Bobby’s journal: “Last night I took subway to volunteer at hospital. Subway in New York is like giant wonder of the world! Amazing and very easy to take. Very good night volunteering for the old people and there I met a man from Korea which taught me new words about English and he offered me large job in bank! Is very good news. I’m thinking maybe taking this job now, except maybe I don’t need so much money.”
Five minutes with Bobby and I want to write poetry. Twenty five minutes with Yoshi immediately thereafter and I want to throw his journal across the room and scream in his face. I’m not consistently jaded like Yoshi; nor am I steadily optimistic like Bobby. So, these journals affect me. The Yoshi-Bobby diaries have become barometers for me, as to the state of my overall happiness. It’s a Zen like practice for me, with a touch of fasting as I await my lunch break. Am I sympathizing with Bobby today, or do I feel morbidly hopeless like Yoshi? I never know until I read the diaries.
“Today is terrible day,” declares Yoshi.
“You said it, Yoshi. Today is terrible, and it’s only getting more terrible and is shit.”
“Today is wonderful day because I prayed with my friends and we made more friends too and they help us learn English and offer us jobs with expensive salaries for the future to be good,” pens Bobby.
“Bless you, brother Bobby. We are all one today, and the future is indeed the shit!”
And reading these two diaries back to back every day, with their diametrically opposed world views existing together within the same set of experiences, it strikes me as perfectly fitting that the difference between shit and the shit is so fleetingly small.
Carl McCoy, copyright 2010
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